The entire city of Buffalo was reeling after hearing the sudden news of the firing of Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff on Wednesday. Yes, the entire city had been calling for it, but the city’s reaction isn’t one which is usually heard among fans who have been begging for his head. Instead of a huffing “good riddance,” Buffalo gave him a sendoff worthy of a beloved President. Ruff, after all, wasn’t a retread coach grabbed by a team looking to build on the cheap. He was the coach of the Sabres for 16 years and a true member of the community. He was also a great coach who was, if anything, guilty of complacency. He had been around for too long, and his message was clearly falling onto the deaf ears of his players.
The instigator of the firing had been a lackluster game against the Winnipeg Jets. Although the hockey season has only just started, the Winnipeg game had the definite feel of a must-win game because the Sabres had started slow and gotten routinely pummeled by the best teams in the East. The Winnipeg game was the beginning of a stretch of games against the East’s dregs, in which the Sabres could have proved themselves at least a competitive playoff team. They failed miserably. Wednesday night, to wash out the aftertaste of the loss in Winnipeg, I caught the NBC Sports Rivalry Night game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers/Pens game proved destined for the league archives. These were two of the best teams in the league, Stanley Cup contenders, and ferocious rivals who can’t stand each other. The game was an exciting, high-powered race which featured heavy hits and fights, a two-goal comeback in the first period, a six-goal third period which carried the threat of overtime, Wayne Simmonds picking up a Gordie Howe hat trick (one goal, one assist, and one fighting penalty) with a second goal, and two goals around the final two minutes, including Jakob Voracek’s game-winner for Philadelphia, which clinched a 6-5 victory.
As I watched that ice war, I couldn’t help but remember back to the earlier, better days of Ruff’s tenure, when the Sabres regularly battered their way through games just like it. When Ruff was first hired back in 1997, he was actually hated by a wide portion of the fanbase. After all, the coach the team had fired, Ted Nolan, had brought back a hard-fighting, aggressive brand of hockey which had pulled the then-lost Sabres out of the woods. When Nolan arrived, the Sabres had talent, but no direction and were therefore just good enough to not be written off. When Nolan left, the Sabres had the best goalie in the world with Dominick Hasek and were seen as real contenders. The problem was that Hasek and Nolan weren’t getting along very well, and while most Buffalo fans believed Nolan – who had won the Jack Adams Trophy – was more responsible for the team’s recent success than Hasek, Hasek was the marquee player. Needless to say, management thought otherwise so it was Nolan’s head that rolled. In came Ruff.
It took only one season for Ruff to silence all doubters. In the 1998 season, he took the very young and inexperienced Sabres to the Conference Finals. They were overmatched by a more skilled and experienced Washington Capitals team, but Ruff didn’t let that slow him down. He one-upped himself in the 1999 season by returning to the Conference Finals, where he was without the aid of Hasek for the first two games. The Sabres matched up with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a more talented team favored to return to the Finals for the first time since 1967. The Sabres and Leafs had split the first two games in the series, but the games told more than the 1-1 series tie after those first two: In the first game, Toronto had given up a lead to lose. In the second, the Leafs scored two first period goals which were 18 seconds apart, a buffer which they turned out to really need. In the third game, Hasek was back, Buffalo won decisively, and Toronto was never in the series again. For the first time in my life, the concept of my team playing for the Stanley Cup was more than an abstract expression used to describe hockey’s ultimate end. The Sabres were really in the Finals. They lost to a far more objectively talented Dallas Stars team, but that’s more in the NHL archives than anything. The vast majority of NHL fans believe the Sabres were robbed by a bad call. The Cup-winning goal was so controversial that even Brett Hull – who scored it and defends its legality – admits the Sabres were royally shafted by the way the cited rules were set up.
Lindy Ruff went on to lead the Sabres through their greatest years, winning a Prince of Wales Trophy, a Jack Adams Award, and a Presidents’ Trophy. The Sabres were a model of stability through Ruff’s guiding hand, and Ruff was the one thing about the Sabres that never capsized. He saw the on-ice team through multiple ownership changes, including one in which the NHL took over from crooked owner who was arrested. After the post-2005 lockout rule changes, Ruff’s teams became the emulated model of the new, wide-open NHL offense.
More notable than that, though, is that with the 1998 run to the Conference Finals, Buffalo’s old sports guard shifted slightly. Buffalo was exclusively a football city for most of my life. While the Sabres had a lot of fans, it was the Bills who owned the city, a fact which was reinforced by the late 80’s when they actually started repaying their fans for years of crappy football. The Bills rose to become an NFL power and dominated throughout the 90’s. By 1998, though, the team was starting to slide a little. They were still a great team, but their star quarterback was retired and the rest of the core was aging. The team hadn’t won a playoff game in a few years. As the Bills slowly drifted into the wayward spiral that passes for them these days, Ruff was pulling the Sabres together. After endless years of first round playoff purgatory, the Sabres were finally causing real damage in deep playoff runs, and the idea that our humble little team could bring home the Stanley Cup didn’t seem like a far-flung fantasy. Buffalo was suddenly paying closer attention to the Sabres than it ever had in my life. The first time I thought the city’s sports mentality was starting to drift was during my 1998 prom, which coincided with a second round playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens. The deejay was regularly cutting into his set to announce the score, which was our cue to cheer since the Sabres were usually ahead. The Sabres ended up winning the game and ultimately sweeping Montreal.
Sabres gear was popping up more and more for the 1999 Stanley Cup. In the meantime, the Bills’ 1999 season ended with what is, at this date, their most recent playoff appearance. They played a wild card game against the Tennessee Titans which was lost on the famous Music City Miracle (or as we call it, The Forward Lateral). Part of the appeal of the Sabres during this time was the fact that they had no superstars outside of Hasek. The team was the NHL’s island of unwanteds and misfits, low-salary workaday joes with nothing to lose, everything to prove, and a world to win. As a reflection of Buffalo’s blue collar lifestyle, the Sabres began marketing themselves as The Hardest-Working Team in Hockey. They lacked real talent in just about every way, but Ruff’s coaching got the players to gell and play as a single unit in a way few NHL teams did. The late 90’s/early millennial teams came off as townies, guys with little to offer besides their bodies. Yet, they played to the few strengths they had, and went above what their talents otherwise would have allowed. They were able to win games against the NHL’s best just because they didn’t quit – in fact, their playoff trademark back then was the way they turned playoff games into multiple-overtime endurance contests.
When the new rules were implemented after the 2005 lockout, the Sabres were written off. Lindy Ruff had other ideas. Instead of being the sick prey for the wolves, the Sabres became the model team of the post-lockout NHL. They adjusted to the new rules very quickly and emphasized a playing style based on up-tempo speed. The style brought them back to the Conference Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes, one of the classic playoff series. The Sabres did the city proud that year despite losing because they dueled to the end with a banged-up defense against a team that had spent the year walking all over them. Ruff walked off with his Jack Adams Award and took the Sabres to the Presidents’ Trophy the following season, where they lost in the Conference Finals again, this time to the Ottawa Senators. Unfortunately, that was really the final great hurrah for the Ruff Era. After that year, general manager Darcy Regier – who was hired at the same time as Ruff and has been considerably worse at his job than Ruff ever was at coaching – let the team’s marquee star players go. A 2010 division title was a pleasant surprise. It was also an aberration, as the Sabres lost the first round to the Boston Bruins. By the next year, Ruff – as well as Regier – was seen as his team’s greatest obstacle.
Lindy Ruff’s firing meant something to Buffalo. Ruff became the very embodiment of the team, through the good and the bad. He always took responsibility for his team’s failures and mistakes. His 16 years meant something to me, because his 16 years of responsibility for my team’s well-being is just a hair over half of my life so far. Lindy Ruff team’s helped bring me through my own formative years. The Sabres are kind of my family team; we adopted them back when I was very young and playing little league hockey. They’re one thing my family really agrees on. My father is a fan, even though he’s loathe to admit it. (He admitted to cheering in his car on Wednesday upon hearing the news of Ruff’s firing.) My sister is also a fan; even though she’s forgotten it, she was always the loudest at games, and like every other properly raised Buffalo kid, she loved Rob Ray. Some of my little league teams were invited to Buffalo Memorial Auditorium to play between periods at games, in front of 17,000 spectators – those were some of the coolest experiences of my life. I also became a huge fan of the Montreal Canadiens (my first team with Cazenovia was called the Canadiens, and our sponsors sent us little knicknacks of the real Montreal Canadiens, so my teammates and I believed we were an extension of them) and, of course, the Chicago Blackhawks. But it’s the Sabres who remain my definitive team, for better or worse, and Lindy Ruff is a massive part of that. Hell, he played for them for ten years before he was ever even a coach.
Ruff thanked the organization and fans at his final press conference. He truly is a Buffalo guy. He raised his kids in this city and will continue to live here. Thank YOU, Lindy Ruff. I’ll be pulling for you, no matter where you coach. You’ll always have a place in Buffalo, and in the hearts of every Sabres fan.