Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A poignant post-game question sticks a fork in the Lindy Ruff Era

Following yesterday's home loss to Winnipeg, a fatal question was directed towards embattled Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff:  "Lindy, this fan-base clearly hates this team, do you understand their [booing]?"

Ruff stood there like a man with no fight left in him and answered, "I understand, I totally understand."

Today Sabres GM Darcy Regier announced that Ruff would be relieved of his duties after 15+ seasons as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.

It was a sad day, yet it had to be a relief for everyone from Ruff, to his players to the fan-base once the decision was made and announced. The weight of poor start had grown so heavy that it's doubtful anything but Ruff's firing could lift it.

This was big news splattered everywhere throughout the hockey world and was the prominent story for the NHL Network throughout the day. After all, Ruff was the longest tenured coach in the NHL, the second longest in American pro sports leagues (San Antonio Spurs coach, Greg Popovich.)

Rochester Americans coach Ron Rolston will take over the reigns of a 6-10-1 Buffalo Sabres team that goes in to tomorrow's game at Toronto 27th in the league. It's a team that's in danger of missing the playoffs for the second straight season under owner Terry Pegula.

It had to be a difficult decision for Pegula, basically having to eat his "Lindy ain't goin' nowhere" proclamation. He stood by Ruff throughout, but when words like "this fan-base hates this team" ring true to the tune of relentless booing for 40 minutes, something needed to be done. And Ruff is gone.

I can guarantee that 99% of Buffalo fans don't hate Ruff personally, they just hate the product on the ice. It was a bad movie. Groundhog Day, hockey-style. And who's to blame for that product is still under scrutiny.

With Ruff now gone, the onus is completely on the players from this point forward, and it's now Regier's ass that's on the line. This is a team that he ultimately put together. These are the players that he wanted. This is the team that got his coach fired.

A visibly upset Regier took the podium today and thank his friend and former coach for everything he did for the organization.

For a guy who sets his team up in the off season and pretty much sticks with it throughout the season, except for some tinkering at the deadline, this was an unusual move. But Regier, and it would seem the organization, still has their eyes set upon making the playoffs. And the product on the ice lead by Ruff simply wasn't getting the job done.

With the Winnipeg game as "the tipping point," Regier met with the powers that be this morning, while Ruff went about his normal routine, then proceed to Ruff's house to tell him the news. Upon learning of that, the now "former coach" only asked that he be allowed to go say goodbye to his players which he did at the team bus as they were getting ready to go to Toronto.

At the end of a very difficult press conference today, Regier nearly broke down when asked how his long-time coach should be remembered. "As a great coach," he said and after gathering himself for a second he continued, "Someone who should be..."

Regier closed by choosing to remember Ruff as legendary NY Islanders coach Al Arbour, "with a sense of humor."

Fans of the Sabres will not remember Ruff that way, simply because a) they don't know anything about Arbour or b) Ruff does not have four Stanley Cup rings like Arbour had.

I'll remember Ruff as a coach who was a steadying force through a multitude of changes in ownership--four owners--during his 15-plus seasons. He also had success with two of those owners:  a Stanley Cup Final appearance with one--the Rigas'--and two Eastern Conference Finals with another--Tom Golisano.

I'll remember Ruff as a coach who could be successful with different personnel--from the "hardest working team in hockey" to the post-lockout Ferrari squad of 2006-07. A coach who could also juggle that through league wide changes in style from the clutch and grab 90's to the post-lockout "new NHL."

But I'll also remember him as a coach who relied too heavily on his starting goaltender to bail out his system, and one who also couldn't get his goalie rotation figured out. He also put too much faith into bottom-six players who were like himself yearning for them to play way beyond their capabilities and/or "show the way,"

And I'll also remember saying throughout his tenure, save for a few seasons, that this team should decline the penalty because of their atrocious play with the man advantage.

The coming days, weeks and months will tell us a little something about the team that Darcy Regier built and just how much talent Ruff had to work with. It will tell us about the players themselves and just how thick and heavy that cloud was hanging over them.

But come tomorrow night it will be a strange sight seeing someone else behind the bench as Head Coach of the Buffalo Sabres instead of Lindy Ruff.

Good Luck, Lindy.

Statement from owner Terry Pegula:  "The hockey world knows how I and the entire Buffalo Sabres organization feel about Lindy Ruff not only as a coach but also as a person. His long tenure with the Sabres has ended. His qualities have made this decision very difficult. I personally want Lindy to know that he can consider me a friend always."

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