BUFFALO, N.Y. – Lindy Ruff walked into the arena he called his office for the better part of 15 years and got a hug from the first person he saw, James the security guard.
From there he talked to Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller and stepped onto the ice at First Niagara Center dressed in a black and green Dallas Stars track suit to go about a typical morning skate. Strange feelings were impossible to shake, because it was anything but normal returning to the place where he became an NHL coaching institution.
“Yeah, you look around,” Ruff said. “A lot of good memories.”
When Ruff stands behind the bench for Team Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, he’ll do so representing the Stars. But it was his time with the Sabres that allowed him to build his legacy and earn a spot as an assistant on Mike Babcock’s staff.
Ruff took the Sabres to the playoffs eight times in 14 full seasons as head coach, including a trip to the 1999 Stanley Cup final against Dallas that ended on Brett Hull’s controversial skate-in-the-crease goal. He won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 2005-06 when Buffalo went 52-24-6 and lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final.
It took a 6-10-1 start in the lockout-shortened 2013 season for Ruff’s run there to end.
“Longevity for a coach is something that’s not easy to attain,” Stars centre Shawn Horcoff said. “For him to be in one city as long as he was is a testament to him.”
Ruff built up plenty of familiarity with the city of Buffalo and the Sabres, but when he went to the Stars there weren’t a whole lot of connections. Horcoff knew him from their time representing Canada at the IIHF world championship in Bern, Switzerland, in 1999, a tournament that ended with a silver medal.
“I think at the time with Lindy, when you have a tournament like that you come together, you give a couple systems and really you just go,” the former Edmonton Oilers captain said. “You kind of play. It’s a lot different than having him as a coach in the NHL during the regular season.”
The Stars (5-5-1) are in last place in the Central Division even after giving Ruff a 4-3 victory over the Sabres on Monday night in the first game back in Buffalo since being fired. Even eight months later Ruff wondered about the games leading up to that.
“I go back to that and think, at that time, we could’ve been .500 or a game or two better, and we let a couple slip away,” he said. “That just sits in my mind. In that process it got to the point where we weren’t quite good enough and weren’t getting the job done.”
Ruff was almost immediately sought-after. He coached Canada last spring at the world championship, a team that included Stars defencemen Brenden Dillon and Stephane Robidas, after previously serving as an associate under Babcock at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
“I think for him it’s just exposure,” Horcoff said. “As coaches you probably view yourself just like a player. You go to those things to try to gain a little more experience, to learn a little more about the game.
“It’s a different game over there. Hockey Canada treats you great. So it’s always a treat and a privilege to go over there. I think that’s why Lindy obviously jumps at any occasion he can to join it.”
Ruff, set to be one of Babcock’s three assistants in Sochi along with Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins and Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues, jumped at the opportunity to coach the Stars after general manager Jim Nill interviewed him last summer.
Occasionally, Ruff still flips to the wrong page when he’s looking up stats and it’s a “friendly fine” on the Stars’ staff for him or assistant James Patrick to refer to the Sabres as “we.” He hasn’t done it yet, possibly because his work in Dallas is much different than in Buffalo.
“Even our daily routine has changed. Post-game has all changed,” Ruff said. “The way I look at some of the way that our team plays, focusing a lot more on how we play versus how the opposition plays. Started that from really Day One of camp and we had a real good camp.”
And that’s after Ruff went almost right from Canada’s Olympic orientation camp in Calgary to Dallas for his first NHL coaching job not with the Sabres since being an assistant for the Florida Panthers.
It was then Ruff began a new chapter in his career, along with new Stars captain Jamie Benn.
“We chat quite a bit,” Benn said. “I’m just looking forward to keep growing our relationship and we’ll see where it goes.”
It could go all the way to Sochi in February, but only if Benn can make Team Canada after being left off the orientation camp roster. His 12 points through 11 games have him 13th among Canadian-born forwards and behind only the San Jose Sharks’ Patrick Marleau for players who weren’t invited to Calgary.
“I’m not even thinking about right now,” Benn said. “It hasn’t been talked about, either. Our focus is on the Stars and what we have to do to win hockey games around here. Olympics is a long way away, so it’s not really a thought right now.”