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Ruff always ready behind Buffalo bench

Tuesday, 10.07.2008 / 9:30 AM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff knows the drill. He knows that coaching in professional sports today can easily be described with a prickly little four-letter word or expression -- Pfft! -- that means something comes and goes in nearly an instant … almost like it wasn't there.

Trace the lifeline on the palm of most National Hockey League coaches and you'll find similarity -- almost all of those lifelines are pretty short.

At 48, Ruff is on the other end of the spectrum. He's managed to avoid the quick hook -- and then some. Lindy is about to begin his 11th season behind the Sabres' bench since being hired by General Manager Darcy Regier on July 21, 1997. On that day, he became Buffalo's 15th coach since the Sabres entered the NHL for the 1970-71 season.

The reasons for Ruff's staying power can be observed on a nightly basis. No coach works harder, whether it's patting a player on the shoulder for a good play, pointing something out to another that will make him better or giving the whole team a good tongue-lashing for indifferent play.

Eleven years after making his NHL debut behind the bench, Ruff remembers his first game like it was yesterday.

"We were outshot something like 41-16 and won (3-1), because Dom (Dominik Hasek) stood on his head for us," he said, remembering that night in St. Louis on Oct. 1, 1997. "Typical coach, I was upset. I was worried that my message wasn't getting across to the players, because we weren't good on the offense, weren't good in the neutral zone and we spent way too much time in our own zone.

"After the game, Rob Ray came up and shook my hand and wondered why I was so upset after a win. He said, 'Coach, that's how we always play.'"

Ruff can work up a little smile when he thinks back on that now. His tenure of 820 games behind the same bench is the longest among today's NHL coaches.

To put that mark into proper perspective, think about this for a moment: 124 coaches have been hired since Lindy started this job.

"That's a huge number," Ruff admitted. "I realize how lucky I've been when you consider there is lot of stress in our profession, because it's a bottom-line, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. The easy thing is to make a change. The tougher move is to stick with it ... and make things work out."

In his 12-season NHL career as a hard-as-nails defenseman who could also go up and down left wing, Lindy developed a love for Buffalo, where he served as captain in his nine-plus seasons with the Sabres. He'll get no Hall of Fame votes as a player, but he watched and learned every day.

"I played and worked (as an assistant coach) under some pretty smart people," Ruff said. "Bill Torrey, Scotty Bowman, Bobby Clarke, Bryan Murray and Roger Neilson were the cream of the crop. I guess you could say I used a little bit of what each of them taught with some of my own ideas on how to do the job."

Still, there was a time in that first season that Lindy didn't think he'd last 10 weeks, let alone 10-plus years.

"I came in replacing Ted Nolan right after he had been named Coach of the Year. That didn't make me the most popular person in Buffalo," Ruff said. "Then, two months into the season, things were pretty dicey. We didn't win a game all preseason, for starters. And going into December, things still weren't going very well. But, finally, we started to work together as a team. We ended up having a great December and a good playoff, getting all the way to the conference finals."

The Warburg, Alberta, native has underscored his staying power by results -- directing the Sabres to winning records in all but one of his 10 seasons and taking his hard-working team to the Eastern Conference Finals four times, including 1999, when, in only his second season behind the bench, they lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Dallas Stars in six games.

Interestingly, even though Ruff and Regier both played for the Lethbridge Broncos in junior hockey -- wore the same number, in fact -- they didn't know one another until Darcy began his search to replace Nolan. The search began with Regier asking Bill Torrey, his mentor with the New York Islanders, and Al Arbour, his former coach, what he should look for in a bench boss.

Arbour suggested a number of attributes, but one stuck out for Regier.

"Al said, 'Darcy you need to find someone you can grow with,'" Regier remembered. "I really didn't understand what he meant at the time. But in conducting interviews with several candidates, I began to get what Al meant -- especially when I spoke with Lindy. It looked like a fit the more we talked."

"I don't think you can become a really solid coach until you've lived a lot of the experiences. I'm proud of what we've accomplished here being able to work through some situations. We've been challenged and succeeded. You have to live through it and learn from it to become better."
-- Buffalo Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff

Before his third interview with Lindy, Regier also spoke with Bowman about Ruff. Darcy recalled Bowman laughing and saying, "He's like Al Arbour ... with a better sense of humor."

That clinched it. Regier and Ruff now represent the longest-running GM-coach combination in the NHL.

"Lindy is fair; he demands the same hard work from you that he puts into the job," said St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay McKee, who got his chance in the NHL under Ruff. "There were some bad times in Buffalo, when you consider the many new ownership groups, the team going into bankruptcy and all of that. But even though the players missed a couple of paychecks, Lindy and Darcy never let the worst part of that filter down to the locker room or into our games."

Through thick and thin, it's been Regier and Ruff.

"Sometimes you feel like you're on the TV show 'Survivor,' " Ruff laughed. "My luck is that Darcy and I seem to fit well -- from the philosophy of having to grow with players and adjust to losing players because of the escalating salaries in a small market, plus the new rules and new styles of play we have to become accustomed to.

"The stability -- or lack thereof -- is something we've worked hard at."

And the "Little Engine That Could" story in Buffalo continues with Darcy and Lindy at the helm.

"It would have been easy for a new owner to go another direction after the bankruptcy, but Tom Golisano (who replaced John Rigas as owner) liked what he saw and heard and wanted to stay the course," Ruff said.

How is Ruff different today than he was in October of 1997?

"He's always been a down-to-earth guy. He doesn't have to be the show, the guy out front all the time," said Ray, who now works on the Sabres' telecast team. "He tried to do a lot himself when he first got the job. Now, he delegates. He shows the players that the coaching staff is the same kind of team that Lindy wants the players to be."

For Ruff, then to now?

"I don't think there's any comparison between now and 10-11 years ago," he explained. "I don't think you can become a really solid coach until you've lived a lot of the experiences. I'm proud of what we've accomplished here being able to work through some situations. We've been challenged and succeeded. You have to live through it and learn from it to become better."

Some hard life facts that Lindy has faced over the years have made him the success he has become.

 
 

As a youngster, Brent, one of Ruff's brothers, was killed in a bus crash along with a number of his Swift Current Broncos teammates back in 1986. In 2006, Madeleine, Lindy's 11-year-old daughter, survived brain surgery to remove a tumor.

"I think you learn to put things in life into their proper perspective," he said with passion. "I think you learn to use life situations to show to the people around."

Strong. Mentally tough. Caring. Down-to-earth. A real leader. Ruff comes from a strong stock, from the family farm in Warburg.

"Warburg's not a city," he chided me. "It's a town of, I think 420 now. It's funny, but my kids look at me like I'm an alien or something when I talk to them about chores and responsibilities and how my brothers and I had to sling 40-pound bales of hay around after we got home from school -- or all day if we were off. They're part of the video game world. For us, doing chores at the farm was expected. It was part of being a family."

His voice crackled a little, when he spoke of Leeson, his dad, and Shirley, his mom.

"Dad had to work three jobs (including driving a school bus) to make a living. Mom worked at a bank," he said. "My mom was held at gunpoint three times ... one time our car was used at the getaway car."

Now that's a life situation that can mold a guy like Lindy Ruff to make good on the opportunities he has in life. It's also what makes him such an interesting character.

And probably why there's been no Pfft! for Lindy.


 

Quote of the Day

What we expected is what we got. Very mature young individual that's focused. He is on the right track. He's not only a great hockey individual, but he's a good person off the ice. He seemed to take a leadership role with this group right off the hop and ran away with it, and was vocal, was respectful, was everything it takes to be a Panther. His future looks bright.

— Florida Panthers director of player development Brian Skrudland on defenseman Aaron Ekblad's performance at development camp