BUFFALO, N.Y. – Lindy Ruff is finding it difficult being a spectator after his 16-year run as Buffalo Sabres head coach came to an abrupt end this week.
“Ah, god, I miss it already,” Ruff said Friday. “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. But I’ve got to keep going. I love the game.”
Speaking publicly for the first time since he was fired on Wednesday, Ruff said it’s his intention to pursue another job because he’s not lost his passion for coaching. He also made clear that he’ll never lose his affection for Buffalo or the Sabres.
“It’s a place I always will call home. I don’t feel like I have anything to be ashamed of or any regrets,” Ruff said. “I’ve had a lot of great memories.”
Those memories came to an end this week, when Ruff was fired after the Sabres struggled in getting off to a 6-10-1 start. The breaking point came after the team was booed off the ice for a lethargic performance in a 2-1 loss to Winnipeg.
Calling the performance “a kick in the gut,” Ruff wasn’t surprised when general manager Darcy Regier showed up on the coach’s doorstep to deliver the bad news a day later.
“When I saw him, I said, ‘I know.’ I said, ‘Don’t say you’re sorry,'” Ruff said. “I said, ‘You’ve been my biggest backer all these years.'”
Ruff, who turned 53 Sunday, spent 26 years in Buffalo, including 10 as a player. He became the team’s winningest coach (571-432-162), and ranks second in the NHL in career wins and games with one team.
Ron Rolston, coach of the Sabres’ AHL affiliate in Rochester, was promoted to take over. He’ll serve as the Sabres interim coach for the rest of the season, and is a candidate to become Ruff’s full-time successor.
Ruff spoke for about 13 minutes at a news conference at the First Niagara Center, while the team practiced at a suburban rink because the ice wasn’t available at the team’s downtown home.
Ruff was emotional at times. His voice cracked when recalling boarding the team bus to inform his players and staff that he had been fired.
Known for his dry wit, Ruff also cracked a few jokes. He ended by saying he’s spent the past few days visiting a chain of doughnut shops trying to win a contest.
Most of all, Ruff was gracious.
“I think I owe a few thanks yous,” he said. “I know I do.”
Ruff began by thanking each of the four owners he’s worked under, and made sure to give particular credit to current owner, Terry Pegula and his wife Kim.
“He’s a fabulous guy to be around,” Ruff said. “My biggest disappointment is not getting it done for them.”
He called himself indebted to Regier, noting that most NHL general managers would have “whacked” him a long time ago. And Ruff paid credit to his players, both current and former.
In no way, Ruff said, did his players let him down this year. He also disputed notions that the locker room was divided.
“They gave me what I asked,” Ruff said. “The leadership, from Jason Pominville and Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek on down, I know how they feel. I feel their pain at the same time. It’s hard right now. But I think better days are right around the corner.”
Even as Ruff cleaned out his office, he had difficulty separating himself from his former job.
“I grabbed my game notes, I’ve looked at all the games, I’ve looked at chances, I’ve looked at how we lost. It’s like I’m driving myself crazy,” he said. “That falls on me. We weren’t good enough to get through a couple of those games.”
Where he’ll draw the line, for now, is when it comes to watching the Sabres play. After watching a few games Wednesday night, Ruff found it difficult tuning in Buffalo’s 3-1 loss at Toronto on Thursday.
“I watched one period and I found it incredibly strange and I had to turn it off,” he said. “I just couldn’t get through last night.”
Ruff also paid tribute to Sabres fans. He recalled how the entire community rallied to his family’s support when Ruff’s youngest daughter, Madeleine, had successful surgery to remove a brain tumour in 2006.
He couldn’t help notice how someone spelled out “Thank U Lindy” in big white letters on a fence lining a construction site across the street from the Sabres’ arena.
“I know there’s a thank you outside on the fence. I’d like to put a thank you right next to it,” Ruff said. “So thanks to all the fans over the years. I owe you. You made this a special place to coach.”