On February 20th, the Buffalo Sabres announced that they had relieved Lindy Ruff of his coaching duties. Ruff being fired ended his tenure as the NHL’s longest serving head coach, and second in the four professional sports (Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs was No. 1). Today, Lindy finally addressed the media two days after being fired.
Just like he entire career, Lindy Ruff defined the word “class” throughout the press conference.
“First, I would like to thank the Knox family for drafting me, and giving me the opportunity,” Ruff said to start the conference. Lindy was selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round (32nd pick overall) of the 1979 NHL draft. Lindy would go on to play 10 seasons for the Sabres, and was the team Captain for his final three seasons in blue and gold. Ruff was traded in 1989 to the New York Rangers for a draft pick. Who would the Sabres use that draft pick on? Richard Smelhnik, who would play for several years under Lindy Ruff.
Ruff’s reputation as a player was one Buffalonians love: A tough, hard nosed player with perfect character. An example of Ruff’s toughness came in a game against he New York Islanders in a playoff game on May 10th 1980. Islanders goaltender, Bill Smith, struck Ruff across the head with his stick as Ruff skated in front of his net. Ruff turned around, and without hesitation, tackled him to the ice.
Ruff became an assistant coach for the Florida Panthers from 1993-1997, and was a part of the 1996 Panthers team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals, but lost to the Colorado Avalanche.
Ruff was named the 15th head coach of the Buffalo Sabres on July 21st, 1997. Nobody knew a 16 year “Ruff Era” would be born on that Summer day.
Ruff had immediate success in Buffalo. He led the Sabres to the Eastern Conference Finals in his first season as the head coach, and the year after took them to the Stanley Cup Finals — we all know how that ended. The following two seasons, Ruff would bring Buffalo back to the playoffs. One, a first round exit courtesy of the Philadelphia Flyers, and a second round exit the following year by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next three seasons, Ruff’s team failed to reach the playoffs preceding to the NHL lockout amidst the teams bankruptcy and financial problems due to the Adelphia Communications corporate scandal. After the 2004-2005 lockout, Ruff would lead the Sabres to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals appearances. In ’05-’06 Ruff’s defensive unit was crippled by injury in the Conference Finals, and lost game seven to the Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina went on to sweep the Edmonton Oilers for the Stanley Cup. The next year, Ruff’s team started out 10-0-0, and would go on to win the Presidents Trophy — the award goes to the best team in the regular season. The Sabres would make it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year, but would be bounced out by the Senators in five games.
After that, things headed south for Ruff and the Sabres organization. Buffalo failed to reach the post-season in four out of Ruff’s last six seasons, and wouldn’t win a playoff series since the ’06-’07 Eastern Conference Semi’s against the Ottawa Senators.
One of Ruff’s most memorable moments as Head Coach of the Buffalo Sabres came in February of 2007, “The Brawl”. For those of you who live under a rock, “The Brawl” took place in Buffalo after Chris Neil delivered a cheap shot to co-captain, Chris Drury. Drury would spill blood on the ice, and Neil wouldn’t be called for a penalty. So Lindy decided to take matters into his own hands. The ensuing shift, Ruff sent out Adam Mair, Andrew Peters, and Patrick Kaleta — three of Buffalo’s bad asses. They would be on the ice with Spezza, Heatley, and Mike Comrie. As soon as the puck dropped, all three Sabres players attacked Ottawa’s forwards, and the brawl begun. Ray Emery and Martin Biron would leave their creases, remove their masks, and drop the gloves. Ruff was fined $10,000 for “precipitating” the brawl after Neil’s hit. The City Of Buffalo started to raise money for Ruff so that he wouldn’t have to pay the fine, but Ruff proudly refused the offer — If that isn’t a sign of class, I don’t know what is.
Those were the good days for Ruff, but unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The past three seasons, including the 17 games Ruff coached this year, the Sabres underperformed and the fans grew restless. This past Tuesday, the Sabres played host to one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference: the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets beat Buffalo 2-1 and that made Sabre Nation erupt with boo’s, and even chants of “Fire Lindy” started in the 300 level. Ruff explained how he felt after his last game as the Sabres head coach, “To take that step back against Winnipeg, that was a real kick in the gut for me.”
When the game was over, Darcy Regier was walking down the hall of the press box with a look on his face that explained what the future would hold. Lindy would be relieved of his duties.
“I saw him, and I said ‘I know,'” Lindy said this morning, talking about Darcy Regier showing up to his home to deliver the news. “I said, ‘Don’t say your sorry.’ I said, ‘You’ve been my biggest backer all these years.'”
Ruff would go on to thank a long list of people: Owners, assistant coaches and trainer, several players, and the fans.
“It’s a hard tough game,” Lindy explained. “It’s been a strange feeling, but I got to keep going. I love the game.”
He watched hockey last night, and tried watching the Sabres 3-1 loss in Toronto. “I watched one period, and found it incredibly strange,” Ruff said. “I turned it off. It’s something I wanted to, but couldn’t.”
In this predicament, some coaches won’t show respect to the GM let alone praise them. Ruff did just the opposite.
Lindy said of GM Darcy Regier: “I know through 16 years theres probably 99 percent of GM’s in the league that would’ve whacked the coach at a certain time. We went through some tough stretches where he believed in me and said, ‘You can get these guys through it.’ He’s a good friend. He’s a great hockey man. We went through a lot together, an I’m indebted to him for trusting me in a lot of tough situations.”
Ruff saved the last part of his speech to talk about the fans in Western New York.
“The fans of Western New York are No. 1. It really came to the forefront when my I dealt with my daughter’s medical condition, got us through a real tough time in our lives. There was a ‘Thank You’ outside on the fence. I’d like to put my ‘Thank You’ right next to it because it’s a special group. It’s a place I call home, always will call home. I don’t feel like I have anything to be ashamed of or any regrets. Western New York is where I’m going to live. I love Western New York.”
Lindy Ruff had to be fired. It was needed, and we all know that. Aside from the team, the playoffs, the NHL, the media, Lindy Ruff is a class act all the way around. From the amount of criticism he dealt with, to the pressure of winning in this city, to defending his team after taking cheap shot after cheap shot, to officials missing a skate that was clearly in the crease, to his daughters medical condition, Lindy Ruff fought for his team, his family, and this city.
Lindy Ruff, this city will be indebted to you. You’re the definition of class, and you will always be loved in the City Of Buffalo.
Not only are we proud, but we are all extremely lucky to call you a fellow Buffalonian.