If there is one thing that Buffalo Sabres Head Coach Lindy Ruff has learned during his first 999 games as an NHL bench boss, it is to expect the unexpected.
Tonight, Ruff will coach his 1,000th career NHL regular season game, which will tie him with his mentor, the late Roger Neilson, for 17th place on the NHL’s all-time list. And if it wasn’t for Neilson, Ruff never would have been in the position he finds himself in tonight, on the cusp of reaching a major milestone.
It was Neilson who first suggested that Ruff should get into coaching when Ruff played for Neilson and was winding down his NHL playing career with the Rangers in 1990. He went on to play a few more seasons in the minor leagues before unexpectedly being hired as one of Neilson’s assistants with the expansion Florida Panthers in 1993-94.
“A rumor going was around at the Draft and somebody called and said ‘your name is up for a coaching job in Florida’ and I knew nothing of it,” Ruff said when describing how he first joined the NHL coaching ranks.
Not only does Ruff credit Neilson for getting him into the coaching profession, but also for helping him become the coach he is today.
“I think the reason I’m here is I was with the right guy (in Neilson),” Ruff said. “His work habits around the game were second to none. Being with him for those couple years gave me just a great background to move forward and just think that I’ve got to put a lot more work into this game than I thought I’d ever put into it.”
While Ruff got his start in Florida, he made his name as a head coach in Buffalo.
Ruff was hired as the 15th head coach of the Sabres on July 21, 1997 by General Manager Darcy Regier, who, fittingly, will be working his 1,000th game as Sabres GM tonight.
In ‘97 I thought I was going to be gone in December. I was young and I just kept hearing that if we don’t win in the playoffs, I’ll be gone. I still remember standing on the bench in Philly after we won (a first round playoff series) thinking ‘I got a chance now.’ That part never leaves you. - Head Coach Lindy Ruff
“I don’t think it’s any secret that I don’t stand here if it isn’t for Darcy,” Ruff said. “I’ve been lucky is what I’ve been. To go through ownership changes and to have the support from Darcy I’ve had is probably the main reason I’m still here. And the new ownership group – Tom (Golisano), Larry (Quinn) and Dan (DiPofi) and the support they’ve given us has been exceptional.”
Together, Ruff and Regier have guided the Sabres to an appearance in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final, four Eastern Conference Finals berths, two Northeast Division titles and a Presidents Trophy in 2006-07. Ruff also added the Jack Adams Award to his résumé following the 2005-06 campaign as well as an Olympic gold medal earlier this year.
Ruff and Regier are currently the longest-tenured GM/coach combination in pro sports. In fact, there have been 155 head coaching changes in the NHL alone since Regier hired Ruff in 1997.
Thirteen years later, Ruff is still surprised he made it out of Year One.
“In ‘97 I thought I was going to be gone in December. I was young and I just kept hearing that if we don’t win in the playoffs, I’ll be gone. I still remember standing on the bench in Philly after we won (a first round playoff series) thinking ‘I got a chance now.’ That part never leaves you.”
If Ruff did not expect to make it through his first season behind the Buffalo bench, he certainly would not have foreseen going 487-370-142 entering his 1,000th game. He currently ranks third in most games coached with one franchise and fourth in most wins with one franchise, and is within striking distance of moving up a notch on each of those lists this season. Ruff points to his willingness to adapt as one of the reasons for his longevity.
“You try from year to year to be unpredictable, to bring something new to the players. Maybe that’s the one reason I’ve been able to hang in as long as I can.”
After all the years and all the accomplishments in Buffalo, Ruff remains determined to bring Buffalo to the top of the hockey mountain. Despite the slow start by the Sabres this season, Ruff is not wavering from his belief in this team.
“I’m a big believer. You’re not going to take the belief away. You keep digging and scratching.”