Fired last week after 16 years and 571 victories in Buffalo, he is too good a coach to stay out of work very long.
Updated: February 23, 2013 - 6:23 PM
It was July 21, 1997, and I was in a press box preparing to cover a San Diego Padres-Florida Marlins game when I got the call that Lindy Ruff, after a monthlong roller-coaster ride, finally got the job to replace Ted Nolan as the Buffalo Sabres' coach.
It was just a matter of time before Ruff, then an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers for four seasons, was snatched from head coach Doug MacLean, who guided the Panthers to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals the summer before.
"This is a great break and an opportunity you don't get very often," MacLean told me that day. "He's a good hockey man, and they made the right choice. It's going to be a tough challenge for him, but a good challenge also."
MacLean was fired 23 games into that season. Ruff was fired Wednesday -- almost 16 years later.
To put that in perspective, the Panthers have had nine more coaches since MacLean was fired. There were 170 NHL coaching changes between Ruff's hiring and his firing.
They say coaches are hired to be fired, but it seemed Ruff would coach the Sabres forever.
"I never thought this day would come," Sabres captain Jason Pominville said Wednesday.
"You keep waiting for Lindy to come back," Thomas Vanek said after Thursday's morning skate.
Ron Rolston, as interim coach, made his debut later that night in a loss at Toronto. It was weird to watch. For 15 seasons, the one constant on that Buffalo bench was Ruff.
Not only is he an excellent coach -- in Florida, where he was originally hired by the late Roger Neilson, Ruff was credited for helping to develop defensemen such as Ed Jovanovski and Rhett Warrener -- he is a character.
He can be gruff. Once, agitator Darius Kasparaitis hurt Tim Connolly with a hip check and then wouldn't fight Mike Grier: "When challenged, he was flopping around like a half-dead fish. He's a heartless, gutless player."
He can be hilarious and is a renowned practical joker. In 2001, I ran to the back of the Panthers' arena because I heard the Sabres' bus had been surrounded by police after a game. Turned out that Ruff arranged for cops to pull over the bus, hop on with a drug dog and stop short in front of then-Sabres rookie Brian Campbell.
A frightened Campbell was found to have a bottle of Viagara in his travel bag.
Still, it was time for Ruff to go. His voice had long grown stale. Goaltender Ryan Miller, who has been horrible, basically said so Wednesday.
The Sabres, whom Ruff led to the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals, missed the playoffs for the third time in five years last year. They haven't won a playoff series since 2007.
Fans and media had been calling for the dual heads of Ruff and besieged General Manager Darcy Regier for years, yet Ruff had several times overcome his job being on the line.
If it wasn't for their being a package deal, Ruff probably would have been gone long ago (Regier should be next).
Much of his M.O. though is because of that longevity. Now, with 571 regular-season victories with one franchise, Ruff becomes the NHL's most coveted free agent. The seat holding every coach guiding a struggling team has gotten a little hotter. If Ruff is the man you may eventually want running your bench, can you really afford to wait and let another team grab him first?
It might be unfair, but one coach this conceivably affects is the Wild's Mike Yeo. The assistant GM in Florida when Ruff was assistant coach? Wild GM Chuck Fletcher.
If I'm Ruff, though, I don't pull a Bruce Boudreau (fired in Washington one day, hired in Anaheim the next). I put my feet up, relax, collect my money and take the rest of the season off.
Why rush into something when you'll have the pick of any vacant job in the league in a few months?
NHL SHORT TAKES
Not hurting in the standings
The Ottawa Senators keep finding a way to win despite injuries to Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek, ahem, Guillaume Latendresse and now Craig Anderson.
If they make the playoffs, Paul MacLean is a lock for Coach of the Year.
Karlsson had his Achilles' severed by Matt Cooke, who sent a text apologizing. Cooke, a renowned cheap-shot artist, wasn't suspended because there's no proof it was intentional.
"I received a text. Didn't think too much of it and didn't reply," Karlsson said. "I don't think he and I have anything to say to each other."
Ron Rolston endorsement
James van Riemsdyk, off to a tremendous start in Toronto with 11 goals, scored two goals in the Leafs' victory in Ron Rolston's debut as Buffalo's coach.
Rolston coached Van Riemsdyk in the U.S. development program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"I'm a big believer in him as a coach," Van Riemsdyk said. "Ron made me into the player I am today. I had some raw abilities, and he molded them into some skills.
"He was good at making young guys comfortable and confident out there. He gave me a kick in the butt every now and then when he thought I needed it. It was my first exposure to video, and he had a little room called the shooting room. That's where I learned to shoot and stickhandle."
WILD'S WEEK AHEAD
Tuesday: vs. Calgary, 7 p.m. (FSN)
Thursday: at Phoenix, 8 p.m. (FSN)
Friday: at Anaheim, 9 p.m. (FSN)
Player to watch:
Teemu Selanne, Anaheim
Ageless wonder. He was Anaheim's leading scorer in 1997 when Lindy Ruff was first hired by Buffalo. Ruff was fired 16 years later, and Selanne, now 42, still leads the Ducks in scoring.
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