TORONTO – Ron Rolston spent time at Harvard University and Boston College, so it’s fitting that words such as “teacher” and “smart” continually surface in conversations about the Buffalo Sabres’ interim coach.
“I’d probably be considered a little more analytical in approach,” Rolston said Thursday before his first game behind the Sabres’ bench.
After 16 years of watching fiery and passionate Lindy Ruff, the switch to the methodical Rolston will be the first thing noticed by Sabres fans. While Ruff certainly had smarts and Rolston undoubtedly will show intensity, a reserved, scholarly attitude is expected to take over Sabreland.
“I like the way he went about his business,” said Toronto forward James van Riemsdyk, who played under Rolston for two years with the United States National Development Team Program. “He wasn’t necessarily a yeller or a screamer. He was a cerebral guy who understood the different nuances about the game and was a great teacher.
“He kind of assesses things and kind of processes things well and just makes decisions from there.”
On the surface, the 46-year-old Rolston made a rapid ascent to an NHL job. He coached just 127 games at the professional level before facing the Maple Leafs in Air Canada Centre, all of them coming with the Sabres’ minor-leaguers in Rochester during the last 16 months.
But he honed his measured tactics at a number of stops dating to 1991. He served as an assistant at Lake Superior State, Clarkson, Harvard and Boston College before a seven-year run with USA Hockey. Though the NHL is a completely different level for Rolston – wins are more important than development – he says he won’t let the atmosphere change his approach.
“Certainly here my job is to jump-start this team and to do it in any way we can,” Rolston said. “I don’t think you can change who you are. I’ve spent twentysome years in this game coaching, and preparation is not” just what he did on Wednesday and Thursday before facing the Leafs. “It was the 20 years before that.
“You certainly have to be flexible in terms of how you go about that with the message, but certainly not the way I coach and the way I handle the players.”
Considering Rolston’s experience at the collegiate, junior and minor-league levels, it’s no surprise his ability to groom players takes a prime spot on his resume.
“Ron’s definitely a good developer and teacher,” said Sabres left wing Marcus Foligno, who spent time in Rochester the past two seasons. “He doesn’t really get startled. He’s calm and he can think in tough situations. That’s one of the good things he has.
“He’s really good at explaining things. He’s really good at details and on-ice stuff. I think he’s going to help us out.”
Defenseman T.J. Brennan, who also played parts of two seasons for the Rolston-coached Amerks, expects the Sabres to gravitate toward the coach.
“There’s just a lot of positivity,” Brennan said. “He does a good job with energy and makes guys feel comfortable. He’s a players’ coach. It’s a little bit of a change from around here, but I think that’s a good thing.
“Everyone’s a little surprised and upset with Lindy. It’s a sad thing to see, but it’s a business. Having Ron come here, you have to move forward. Ron’s going to bring a lot of positivity, and hopefully we’ll turn this thing around.”
The biggest question will be how the Sabres’ veterans react to the newcomer.
“We have to move forward,” said alternate captain Thomas Vanek, who added it was difficult to believe his eight-season run with Ruff had ended. “I have to get beyond that and respect Ron coming in and listen to his new philosophy.”
Kevin Porter, the Amerks’ captain who joined Rolston in making his Buffalo debut Thursday, said the coach has the ability to connect with youngsters and older players.
“The first time you talk to him you know he’s a smart guy and he knows hockey,” Porter said. “The older guys there he was great with. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a smart guy, and he’s a good coach.”
Rolston immediately made it clear he won’t spare players’ feelings. He was asked to assess what he’s seen from the Sabres this season, and his blunt answer showed Ruff wasn’t solely to blame for the struggles.
“From what I saw, it was more of just a lot of shortcuts, a lot of shortcuts, a lot of rest in shifts, the things that you just have to eliminate if you’re going to be a good hockey team,” he said. “Most importantly, it’s just getting back to that. It’s getting back to work and getting back to eliminating shortcuts from your game because there’s not a whole lot of time.
“We understand at this point that the talking part of things is over. As Michael Jordan says, ‘I want to see it done, I don’t want to hear it done.’
“We talked about it being a process for us. Certainly, any time there’s a change, especially with the tenure Lindy had with this group, there’s obviously a new voice now. It’s my job with that voice to get the message across and make sure the tone is set and the mind-set is where we want it to be.”