Lindy Ruff: Fourteen Years and Counting
By the time he had pulled himself out of the bar stool and into the street, it had stopped raining. It was spring. Most of the snow had melted away, at least for now, and that mid-April optimism of warmer days and more sunshine and hockey playoffs were lifting everyone's spirits. It was there, in Buffalo, NY, that I received an e-mail from an old girlfriend who had snapped a photo of the man. She didn't pay attention to hockey -- if that was possible in Buffalo at the time -- and so didn't know him but knew at least that he was important because everyone kept buying him drinks and asking for handshakes or pictures. It was Lindy Ruff, and in the e-mail came a somewhat blurry, hastily taken photograph of Ruff throwing up a six hour celebratory bender on some downtown Buffalo sidewalk. It is one of my favorite vicariously lived memories, and had I known I would be writing so much someday, I probably would have kept the picture to share every single time I ever met anyone from Buffalo.
This was the spring of 2007, just after the Sabres had reigned in a door-to-door President's Trophy and been declared the early post-season favorites to take the whole thing. Now, looking back at it, it must have been one of the most encouraging times in Ruff's life. Here he was, ten years into a coaching career in Buffalo that had seen everything short of a Stanley Cup victory, including the highs of a miraculous 1999 run to the Finals on the shoulders of the best goaltender in the world, and the lows of a corrupt owner who pushed the team into bankruptcy and left one of the United States hockey hotbeds for dead. This was Ruff's magnum opus, the great work of his career, a season that saw the Sabres tie an NHL record for its undefeated start, incite a full-line brawl against Ottawa that inspired Sabres fans to offer payment for Ruff's proceeding fine, and the origination of the now infamous phrase in Sabreland, "the tools to finish the job."
Ruff and his Sabres were about to host the 1st round of the NHL playoffs against the New York Islanders and former Sabres coach, Ted Nolan. It was storybook in appearance. Nolan was the once beloved Sabres suit-and-tie who brought a gritty, tenacious style to Buffalo, had helped the franchise become the "hardest working team in hockey", and had inspired the playful usage of hard hats and lunch pails by the fans to describe the organization. Then, Nolan left abruptly and on bad terms, embroiled in a bitter rivalry with star goaltender Dominik Hasek and the Sabres shape-shifting front office. It was a time of terrible PR for the team, exiling a coach that fans had come to love and to whom they related and after he had seemed to make the team better or, in any event, more exciting to watch.
Lindy was supposed to be the fix to that ill-will. Hard nosed, just like Nolan, Ruff also had the added benefit of being a little easier to swallow for players and management. He wasn't just a guy that said what fans wanted to hear, but Ruff had the unique ability to do the same thing within the organization. He was all the toughness of Ted Nolan on the surface, but much more company line. At a time in which the Sabres were still in the process of transferring their ownership motus operandi from the family-oriented Knox image to that of the more corporate, more white-collar Rigas operation, Ruff was a far more perfect fit than someone, excuse the pun, rough around the edges like Nolan. Ruff was white, had ties to the Sabres and experience as an assistant coach with an expansion franchise (which excused his assistant coaching record) -- he had been primed for a head coaching position and was unanimously viewed around the league as "ready" -- but better yet, he'd come into the situation with a history of doing and saying all of the right things. He was good with the media, tough on his players, but they still seemed to like him, and he had a way of inspiring the same type of giddy confidence both in fans and ownership that few could simultaneously muster.
It's hard to believe now -- at a time in which the Sabres franchise seems more beholden to Lindy Ruff than the other way around -- but at the outset Ruff was a coach who was viewed as far more controllable and amiable than the Nolan firebrand.
The Long and Winding Road
To call Lindy Ruff's career a journey may be a mild understatement. Saga is probably a better word. In a league in which a Conference final appearance occurs for the average franchise once every 7.5 years, he's essentially doubled that success by bringing the team to four. He captured the organization's first President's Trophy, won a Coach of the Year award, managed the minefield that was the final years of Hasek's Sabres career with almost unbelievable grace and then manufactured a world-class goaltender of his own in the name of Ryan Miller. All of this, and more, he seemed to accomplish despite the constant restraints of a roster that could never really be improved upon due to limitations from ownership.
Fourteen years in, though, these things seem to mean less than they once did. For a coach who will surely be celebrated by the Sabres organization in form of a banner or statue or something long after he's actually gone, a lot of sour feelings have developed. The team has missed the playoffs in three of the last five years, has, in fact, not won a playoff series since that fateful 2006-07 season, and whispers have began to circulate that some players, many of whom have been here for the better part of a decade themselves, have grown tired of Ruff's antics and style.
Many among Sabres Nation have already declared that it is time to move on from Ruff; that despite the excuses and limitations -- whatever they are and regardless of if they are valid -- fourteen years is simply too long a time for one man to be behind the wheel. As time and season after season passes, it appears that we are reaching a point where the likelihood of the two parting ways increases. As the organization and fans realign their expectations under the new, money-is-no-object, win-now focus of the Pegula ownership, more and more pressure will be heaped on the longest-tenured-coach to produce profound and immediate results. It is very likely that, failing a Championship, we are witness to the last one or two years of Lindy Ruff in Buffalo.
And so, from that viewpoint and in not knowing what the final result will be, how do we analyze the Lindy Ruff coaching tenure with the Sabres? There are some out there who would surely consider anything short of a Championship to be a failure, and that is at least a reasonable opinion, but certainly an arguable one. Former Buffalo Bills Coach and NFL Hall of Famer Marv Levy is almost universally adored in Western New York despite no title. Ted Nolan, whom many still wish was running things to this day, never even made it to the Finals.
How do we view what Ruff has done here? If he never wins a Stanley Cup with the Sabres, will we look back in two decades on him mostly positively, the way most Bills fans do with Levy? Will we convey frustration at a decade of wasted opportunities, near misses and just-not-good-enoughs? And what does our view of Ruff, seemingly ever-changing, say about how we treat our coaches and players around here?
The Good and The Well-There-Is-A-Reason
"The precedent has been set; losing will not be acceptable in this city." are the exact words that Lindy Ruff uttered at his introductory press conference. It might inspire a chuckle these days, after the belt-tightening era of Golisano and parades of injury excuses and what-have-you to imagine a time in which those words from Lindy Ruff meant something, but in the late 90s there was a palpable sense that the team was onto something big, that momentum was on its side. It did not take long for many to realize that Ruff was well-equipped to lead that team toward a deep playoff push or two, and for the first time maybe since the 70s, realistic cup banter had returned to the Queen City.
Then, just as it had been planned and to the applauding acceptance of virtually everyone, we had lift off. Ruff led the Sabres to 4 consecutive playoff appearances in his first four seasons, including a Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final, as well as a bitterly contested Semi-Final defeat to the Penguins that ended in a Game 7 loss (from a quizzically awful Kasparitis shot that was taken, I believe, from Hamilton, Ontario).
Ruff had accomplished what just about no coach in Sabres history had accomplished before: he made the team relevant, and not just briefly, but year in and year out, mixing amazing playoff runs with miraculous regular season comebacks from the dead and showcasing a couple of guys named Peca and Hasek who loved to hit the snot out of people and make mind-bending saves.
So around the time in 2002 that things started going sour, it was no surprise that Ruff seemed like an institution already with the organization. He and General Manager Darcy Regier had formed a tight friendship and, going into a situation in which the team would be hand-cuffed by a first-bankrupt, then-felon owner, then owned by the league and very nearly relocated, there was very little that could be blamed on either of them. After all, what could one expect from these guys given the circumstances? When Hasek forced a trade to a "contender" and Mike Peca was traded after long, miserable contract negotiations, Ruff's three-consecutive playoff misses in the years leading up to the lockout were as frequently excused away as the result of things out of his control as they were attributed to him.
Then came Tom Golisano and a lockout that occurred at a perfect time for a team that needed to find its financial bearings. 2005-06 rolled in with a new league that promised new rules and more action. The Sabres had been building for this league for quite some time, and, now out from under the cloud of the Rigas scandal, Lindy Ruff could bring his team back to prominence as he had once before, as we always knew he would.
And he did. Back-to-back 50+ win seasons, two Conference Finals appearances, an All-Star game coached and a Coach of the Year award later, and confidence had not just be re-instilled in Ruff, but many in town were begging the struggling Bills franchise to follow the Golisano-Regier-Ruff model. Though the Sabres had not reached the summit of hockey in the spring of 2007, losing to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final 4-games-to-1, there was a lot to be hopeful for. Their goalie, Ryan Miller, was young and seemingly improving at every step. Although the Sabres had both of their co-captains, Chris Drury and Danny Briere to re-sign in the off-season, they were definitely going to re-sign at least one of them, and the team had a whole host of depth to make up for whatever was lost anyway.
And Lindy Ruff had found his mojo again. Yeah, things were going to be just fine.
The Bad and The Era of No More Excuses
As a member and eventual captain of the Sabres, Lindy Ruff's playing career was often as tumultuous as his coaching career was later. Ruff was well known for his grittiness on the ice, displaying the type of won't-quit fight-in-the-dog mentality that many believe is what makes him such a dominating presence behind the bench. As much as Ruff is known for his highs, though, like a retaliatory tackle of Islander cheap-shotting goaltender Billy Smith, he is seen for his lows, like going through the frustration and embarrassment of being benched while wearing the "C", something Ruff fought with doing to recent Sabres captain Craig Rivet as the aging defenseman rapidly lost his foot speed. What we learned from Ruff's playing career, it turns out, was very similar to what we've learned about his coaching career thus far: Potential, toughness, but never quite good enough, though there is just something about him that keeps us guessing.
After both Briere and Drury left, and after people's tone had shifted drastically about Tom Golisano and the limitations he had put on the Sabres financially, Ruff had another grace period from which to work. Still, by late 2009 and after two more lost seasons, people had entered "enough already" mode and demanded not only the playoffs, but playoff results. The 2009-10 season brought about some rejuvenated expectations, mostly on the back of an all-world career year by Ryan Miller, who would lead the Sabres to 3rd place in the Eastern Conference and go on to win the Vezina Trophy. But an early round exit to the Boston Bruins had people questioning whether the team was physical enough and whether or not Lindy Ruff's coaching style was ever going to bring the team to its ultimate goal. Ruff then resurrected a lost season in 2010-11 with a frantically paced run to the playoffs, stringing together an astounding second half with what seemed like little more than spit and duct tape.
Despite another 1st round exit, this time in seven games at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers, things were looking up. Ruff had an out: the hope of new billionaire owner Terry Pegula, who vowed to invest his vast wealth into the franchise and to change everything. The purpose, Pegula said, was now to win the Stanley Cup.
But in 2011-12, that was not the case. Despite being given a roster filled with turnover both from fresh prospects and high-profile acquisitions, Ruff and the Sabres went through a period of historically bad hockey (aided by a historic number of injuries) in December and January, mounted a comeback through February and March before fading in the final week of the season and finishing 9th. After the season, players Derek Roy and Ville Leino hinted at various displeasures with Ruff's coaching style and communication.
Though given the vote of confidence from his ownership after the season, it seems more true now than ever that if Ruff doesn't win in the immediate future that he may not be around much longer. Criticism has been felt by Ruff for a few years, but it had never really reached the point where it seemed practical that the criticism might actually lead to a change until now. Even those who have stood by Ruff through the thin times now must admit that the many handcuffs that prohibited him from doing his job have been removed under Pegula. Now, there are no more excuses. Fourteen years after it began, the seemingly endless honeymoon has finally come to a close.
The Missive of a Man
I'll never be able to fully describe what we love about Lindy Ruff, but there is something there. I imagine even if another coach comes in and wins a title here, there will still be something about Ruff that will keep him at least tolerated in the world of Buffalo sports. I think my best attempt at describing it might be that I feel like he knows the right thing to do, even when he doesn't do it, or even when he doesn't say it. It feels -- to me anyway -- like he is very grounded in a reality to which all Buffalo sports fans can relate.
Even still, the fact that he remains the Buffalo Sabres head coach after fourteen years is puzzling, and is likely a credit to nothing more than the fierce loyalty of Darcy Regier, who has stated before that he'd risk his own job before firing his coach and friend.
Ruff's tenure here is evidence of one other thing: Buffalo fans' tendency to be swayed by potential. No one has been able to traverse the landscape of the Buffalo sports community with such a politician-like ambivalence as Lindy. He is resilient, tricky and seemingly impervious to criticism. He always finds a way to sound reasonable even when that seems impossible.
Whether or not Ruff becomes hockey's version of Bill Cowher: a scowling old-school adaptation of a coach who finally reaches the promise land after years and years, he will nevertheless hold some place in our hearts as a guy we all at least respected. When you add up all of the games played by a hockey team from a January-to-December calendar year, it turns out that we see our hockey team play almost once every three days throughout. One of the few constants year-to-year over those last fourteen has been Lindy Ruff; so much so that he almost seems a part of our families as a distant uncle or something.
While we might not get a Christmas Card from Ruff anytime soon, he has been, indisputably, "our guy" -- the singular representative entity of all that is supposedly good about Buffalo sports, and all that is incomplete but might someday be. It's interesting to view him in that way. Sometimes, as the old adage goes, you don't know what you've got until its gone. But then again, sometimes you never exactly miss it, either.
Matthew Stewart is a freelance writer living in Austin, TX. Follow Matthew on Twitter