Lindy Ruff has been driving from coffee shop to coffee shop the past few days, collecting his thoughts and empty cups. He knew folks wanted to say goodbye, but he wasn’t sure he was ready.
He was certain he wanted to say thanks, however, so the Buffalo Sabres’ former coach returned to First Niagara Center on Friday for a farewell appearance. It was filled with emotions and laughs, two of the trademarks Ruff established during his 26-year ride as a coach and player in Buffalo.
“Thanks to all the fans over all these years,” Ruff said. “I owe you. You made this a special place to coach.
“I know there’s a thank you outside on the fence,” he said, referring to handmade letters taped near the doors of the arena that spelled out, “Thank U Lindy.” “I’d like to put my thank you right next to it because it’s a special group. It’s a place that I call home, I always will call home.”
Ruff’s love affair with Western New York and its hockey team began in 1979 when the Sabres drafted him in the second round.
“I still have the invitation to training camp in a book,” he said.
The coupling continued for a decade on the ice and restarted in 1997 when he took over as coach. He spent 16 years behind the bench until getting fired Wednesday with the Sabres near the bottom of the NHL.
“I don’t feel like I have anything to be ashamed of or any regrets,” Ruff said. “I’ve gone over every game. I’ve cleaned out my office. I’ve grabbed all my notes. I’ve grabbed game notes. I’ve looked at all the games. I’ve looked at chances. I’ve looked at how we lost.
“It’s like I’m driving myself crazy, but when I was done I said, ‘You know, we gave three games away. We could have been at 9-7 and in a pretty good place, and instead we’re at 6-10.’ That falls with me.”
It was clear listening to him talk that the memories and friendships he built will hold more significance than this season’s disappointment.
He thanked team founders Seymour and Northrup Knox for bringing him to town as a player and coach. He thanked the Sabres’ other owners – John Rigas, Tom Golisano, Larry Quinn, Dan DiPofi and Terry Pegula – for keeping him around. In true Ruff style, he wittily said he’d skip the era when the NHL owned the bankrupt team.
He thanked the players who performed for him, the ones in the early years who went to four straight post seasons and the skaters now who are in position for a second straight playoff-free campaign.
“The reason a coach has success is he has players who play for him,” Ruff said. “It’s hard right now, but I think better days are right around the corner.”
Ruff also praised Darcy Regier, who hired Ruff just a month after becoming general manager. Regier delivered the dismissal at Ruff’s home in Clarence.
“I saw him, and I said, ‘I know,’ ” said Ruff, who was emotionally devastated following a lackluster 2-1 loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday. “To take that step back against Winnipeg, it was like a kick in the gut for me. You guys saw it. I saw it. I felt it.”
Aside from the fans, Ruff gave his most gracious gratitude to longtime equipment manager Rip Simonick. The South Buffalo native provided Ruff with the best equipment as a rookie and was a friend during the long plane rides as coach.
“He’s no longer coaching the team, but he’ll root for the team,” Simonick said following the Sabres’ practice in Northtown Center at Amherst. “He’s a Buffalonian.
“He came as a kid from Alberta with a chip on his shoulder. ... Everybody knew what they were going to get. When Lindy coached against you, he coached to win. He didn’t care if you took a punch to the nose or a stick from behind. Whatever you had to do to win the game, that was the bottom line.”
Ruff will take time to clear his head, but he has no doubts he’ll return to coaching.
“God, I miss it already,” he said.
He watched hockey on television the day he was fired, and he tried watching the Sabres play Thursday. He lasted one period.
“I found it incredibly strange, and I had to turn it off,” he said.
He refuses to turn off his admiration for the area and the organization, specifically Pegula and his wife, Kim.
“My biggest disappointment is not getting it done for them,” Ruff said. “We’ll get it right here. You’ve got to trust them because he’s a competitor. He’s a fabulous guy to be around, and it will get done right. I know it’s painful right now, but it will get it done.”