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FEATURE: Reflections on Ruff

Former players Jay McKee and Dave Lowry reflect on Lindy Ruff's coaching style and attributes

by Peter Robinson NJDevils / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

Fitting, perhaps, Jay McKee's prompt return of a text message spoke to the high regard he holds for the man who coached him for most of his NHL career. 

"Lindy (Ruff) is an excellent coach and an excellent person," said McKee, who played 13 seasons and 802 NHL games, most of it for Buffalo while Ruff was behind the Sabres bench, via text. 

"I'd be delighted to chat about my nine years with him." 

That chat revealed more about Ruff, who was installed recently as the Devils head coach. 

"Lindy is a great communicator and his Xs and Os are great too," said McKee, who most recently was the head coach of the Kitchener Rangers, the Ontario Hockey League club of Devils prospect Michael Vukojevic. 

Aside from a few months after he was let go by the Sabres, Ruff has coached continuously in the NHL for 26 seasons, the vast majority as a head coach in Buffalo and Dallas. Ruff also served as an assistant with the New York Rangers and in Florida, including the Panthers run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final. 

"Lindy came along for us at a time when coaches didn't really associate (off-ice) with the players," recalled retired NHL forward Dave Lowry, who is now the head coach of the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. "Lindy would play golf with us and take part in the occasional card game… that was unheard of at the time." 

Imagine hockey players playing golf and cards, who knew? 

Ruff didn't always deal royal flushes; he was not afraid to dole out bust cards. 

"I don't want to call him a players' coach (necessarily), because he was never afraid to crack the whip," said McKee. "What he is, is he's an excellent person, just a good human and he can connect with guys, especially young players…I know that I really (benefitted) from him early on in my career."

Lowry's perspective is interesting because not only did he play for Ruff, who was an assistant behind the Panthers bench, but his teammate at the time was Tom Fitzgerald. 

Fitzgerald, who had his interim GM tag removed the same day he hired Ruff as head coach, made an impression on Lowry as a teammate and McKee as an opposition player. 

"I've always kind of followed Fitzy's career since we played together," said Lowry. "He's an interesting guy. How many guys can say they had long careers like he did, playing the way he did? Then, he coached (in Pittsburgh), got into player development, was an assistant GM, then interim. I mean, look at the moves he made for New Jersey (as interim GM) leading up to the deadline, to me he's the perfect guy for that job." 

McKee played a year in Pittsburgh in 2009-10, just after the Penguins won the Stanley Cup and while Fitzgerald had transitioned into a player development role after serving as an assistant to Dan Bylsma on the Cup-winning squad in 2009. 

"I don't really know Fitzy other than as a player; I played against him a lot," remembers McKee, "but I will say this, that it's usually guys like him who make the best GMs."

Lowry had a long NHL career (18 years, 1084 games) and now 15 years as either a head coach in Canadian major junior or as an NHL assistant. It gives him a perspective that goes beyond just being a former player. Like Fitzgerald, who has two pro hockey player sons, so does Lowry, whose son Adam plays for the Winnipeg Jets. 

Lowry said that the process a coach and GM undertake to stay relevant and keep up with changes in the game is a never-ending job. 

"It's like technology, you always need to know the latest, greatest (piece)," said Lowry, "but sometimes you pick it up just by watching your own kids.

"It's like gaming, like (learning to play) Fortnite."

Speaking about Ruff, McKee points out how he engineered two long playoff runs with the Sabres with two completely different types of teams and two entirely different systems that were both separated by several years. 

"The first time, 1999, we got to the Final and really only had one star player and that was our goalie, (Dominik) Hasek," recalls McKee. "Then in 2006 we had Max (Afinogenov), Chris Drury, Danny Briere, Derek Roy…had we not had four defensemen injured (in the playoffs) and Tim Connolly the (outcome) could have been different (than losing in the Eastern Conference Final)." 

"That was all Lindy being able to adjust like he did as a head coach (and have success) with different teams and (installing) two completely different systems."

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