In his first public comments since being fired as coach of the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday, Lindy Ruff talked about how much the organization meant to him.
Ruff's firing ended a relationship that started when the Sabres selected him in the second round of the 1979 NHL Draft.
"I still have the invitation to training camp in a book," Ruff said.
Through 10 seasons as a Sabres player and 15 seasons as coach Ruff became a constant in Buffalo. But with the team struggling, the franchise dismissed the longest-tenured coach in the NHL on Wednesday.
However, Ruff said there were no hard feelings toward anyone, taking time at a press conference at First Niagara Center to thank all three ownership groups he worked under, general manager Darcy Regier, all the players he coached and Buffalo-area hockey fans.
"The fans of western New York are number one," Ruff said. "They really came to the forefront when I dealt with my daughter's medical condition. Got us through a real tough time in our lives. And I know there's a thank you outside, a fan sign, and I'd like to put my thank you right next to it because it's a special group. It's a place that I call home [and] always will call home."
Ruff said he wasn't sure if he would remain part of the Sabres' organization, but said he did want to return to coaching.
"I miss it already," he said. "Most people wouldn't, but I watched hockey the first night. It's hard. It's a tough feeling. It's been a strange feeling. I have to keep going. I love the game."
He also loved his players, past and present, and spent time thanking them, as well.
"The reason a coach has success is because he has players that play for him," he said. "… I owe a great big thanks to all those players, from day 1 to now, from the [Richard] Smehliks and [Alexei] Zhitniks of the world to the [Michael] Pecas, to all our current players, the [Danny] Brieres, the [Chris] Drurys, the players that have come and gone through the doors. You don't last this long without good players and good players playing good for you, scoring special goals."
Ruff was equally fond of the current group, and said when Regier informed him that he was being let go, he made one request -- to tell the players in person.
"I drove to the bus [and] nobody knew, no coaches knew, no anybody," Ruff said. "I stepped on the bus and thanked them. Thanked them for all the work. We had a hard day [Wednesday]. It was a great day of practice, we had a great meeting as a team, I met with some of the leaders that morning. It was just dead silent on the bus. I walked off and the players walked off and said goodbye."
Ruff viewed being allowed to say a final goodbye to his team as one final classy move by Regier.
"To Darcy, to whom I'm indebted as a head coach because I know through 16 years, there's probably 99 percent of the GMs in the League who would have whacked the coach at a certain time. We went through some tough stretches where you believed in me and said you can get these guys through it," Ruff said. "He's a good friend, he's a great hockey man. We went through a lot together. I'm indebted to him for entrusting me in a lot of tough situations."
But the final tough situation was one Ruff couldn't work his way out of.
"I've gone over every game," he said. "I cleaned out my office, I grabbed all my notes, I grabbed all the game notes, I looked at all the games, I looked at the chances, looked at how we lost. I'm driving myself crazy. When I was done, I said we gave three games away. We could have been at 9-7 and in a good place and instead we're at 6-10. And that falls with me. We weren't good enough to get through a couple of those games."
However, Ruff said he sees a bright future for the current players -- even though he could only bring himself to watch one period of Thursday's loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, saying he "found it incredibly strange and I had to turn it off."
"It's a united group," Ruff said of his now-former players. "Sometimes you [the media] think it's been divided, but they're a very united group. They're in a place where they're trying to support each other, push each other. It's been hard. It's been painful. They're working hard at it. The leadership from Jason Pominville, Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek down, I know how they feel. I feel their pain at the same time. It's hard. It's hard right now. But I think better days are right around the corner."