BUFFALO, N.Y. – Forget the 999 regular season games he’s already coached in Buffalo. Lindy Ruff once thought he’d never get past Christmas of his first year with the Sabres.
“No, I’m not being funny,” Ruff said, recalling the difficulty of being a 37-year-old rookie coach for a team that won seven of its first 25 games in 1997. “I thought I was going to be gone in December.”
Well, look who’s still standing.
In a profession where job security is as slippery as a fresh sheet of ice, Ruff will become the NHL’s third coach—and first with the team that first hired him—to reach 1,000 on Wednesday, when the Sabres play at New Jersey.
“I’ve been damn lucky is what I’ve been,” Ruff said.
Ruff will become the 18th NHL coach to reach 1,000 games—to tie his former mentor, the late Roger Neilson—and join Al Arbour (1,500 with the Islanders) and Billy Reay (1,012 with Chicago) as the only ones to do it with one team.
“That’s a tribute to him, let me tell you,” Arbour said. “In some places, you lose a couple of games and they fire you. I mean, things are tough right now for Buffalo, but I know he’s going to get over it. You just hang in there.”
Ruff has endured three ownership changes, the franchise declaring bankruptcy in 2003, five seasons of missing the playoffs, as well as the highs and lows that came with four Eastern Conference finals appearances and Buffalo’s 1999 run to the Stanley Cup final. That championship run ended with Dallas winning on Brett Hull’s triple-overtime clincher in Game 6—a goal still disputed in Buffalo because Hull’s skate was inside the crease.
The former Sabres captain has done it with a self-styled approach that’s both philosophical and intense—Ruff’s noted for his red-faced rants along the bench.
If experience has taught Ruff one thing, it’s understanding that troubled times and slumps don’t last.
As he readies for this historic mark, there are questions about his status because of the Sabres’ start—4-9-2 and winless (0-6-1) at home. There has been no indication from management that Ruff’s job is on the line, and general manager Darcy Regier has backed Ruff.
“The focus is on being better, getting better and what we have to do both as individuals and as a team to improve,” Regier said.
Ruff, too, is focused on staying positive.
“We need to put something together now,” Ruff said. “And I think you only eliminate the bad times by putting together a real good stretch and coming out the stronger team.”
There have been 155 coaching changes in the NHL since Ruff was hired to replace Ted Nolan. Much of the credit for Ruff’s tenure goes to Regier, whose patience was influenced by Arbour and former Islanders GM Bill Torrey, a major proponent of staying the course.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that I don’t stand here if it wasn’t for Darcy,” Ruff said.
The two first met in Whitefish, Mont., in the mid-1970s. Regier was introduced to Ruff by a mutual friend and gave him a lift back to Lethbridge, Alberta, where both had played junior hockey. Ruff played for the Western Hockey League Broncos the season after Regier left, coincidentally wearing the same jersey number, 20.
When it came to hiring Ruff, then an assistant with Florida, Regier did so on the advice of Arbour and Scotty Bowman—two former coaches who have 3,748 games coached between them.
But Ruff didn’t feel secure in Buffalo until after the Sabres eliminated Philadelphia in five games of a first-round playoff series in his rookie season.
“I still remember standing on the bench there in Philly after we won, thinking, ‘I’ve got a chance now,'” he said. “I can probably tell you the tie that night I was wearing. It was black with brownish, copper stripes.”
Smiling, Ruff then couldn’t help but reflect on the team’s tough start this season.
“I’m out of lucky ties right now,” he said.