A titan of Western New York lost his job on Wednesday when the Buffalo Sabres fired Lindy Ruff after 16 years behind the bench. Ruff’s dismissal comes after he coached 1,165 games in the National Hockey League, all with the same team. He was the second-longest tenured coach in all of professional sports, behind only Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
Ruff was so popular in Buffalo because of his decades-long status with the beloved Sabres. He played for the team from 1979 until 1989 before being hired as coach in the 1997-1998 season. All told, he spent 26 seasons with the team, charming fans with a quick wit and generous personality.
In a sport where coaches rarely last more than a few seasons, Ruff survived ownership changes and led the Sabres to the conference finals four times and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999. He won the Jack Adams award for best coach after the 2005-2006 season. Since Ruff was hired in 1997, 170 other coaches have lost their jobs.
But fans will hope his firing is the culmination of over two ugly seasons for the Sabres, during which they’ve looked lackadaisical and uninterested, traits that are especially foreboding in a primarily momentum-won sport. His last game with the team was Tuesday night’s 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, a bottom feeder in the Eastern Conference the Sabres were predicted to dominate this season.
Many of the players on the team had only played in the NHL for Ruff, and the news still hadn’t set in on Thursday as they prepared for a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs under interim head coach Ron Rolston, promoted from Buffalo’s minor league affiliate. Star goaltender Ryan Miller told ESPN part of the blame lies in the locker room.
“Lindy did a lot for me in my career,” Miller said. “He gave me an opportunity to go in the net. … We had some good years and some tough ones in there too. But we went through the ups and downs and I have a lot of respect for him. Considering how long he’s been there, I wish we had done better by him so he could have had a little bit of a cleaner break, I guess. Although in pro sports, you rarely get that.”
Ruff was let go by the same man who hired him in general manager Darcy Regier. Regier had previously said that as long as he was in charge Ruff would remain the coach, but on Wednesday the GM visited his longtime friend, delivering the news in Ruff’s living room. Ruff later said his goodbyes when the team was on the bus awaiting travel to Toronto.
“You could see the disappointment in his eyes, and there’s nothing you could say to make him feel better,” said winger Thomas Vanek. “I shook his hand and said sorry I couldn’t be better for him. At the end of the day, the coach gets fired, it’s a reflection of your team and I’m a leader on this team.”