BUFFALO – Lindy Ruff tried watching the Sabres’ 3-1 loss Thursday in Toronto. He lasted one period. The team’s former coach found the experience “incredibly strange.”
“I turned it off,” Ruff said Friday inside the First Niagara Center, his first comments since the Sabres’ 6-10-1 start led to his dismissal Wednesday after 15 seasons as coach. “It was something I wanted to but I couldn’t.”
Ruff was emotional, thoughtful and even funny while speaking 13 minutes inside the Lexus Club, thanking ownership groups, his players, the Sabres’ rabid fan base, equipment manager Rip Simonick and team staff.
He recalled getting his 1979 training camp invitation from the Knox family, the start of his long Sabres life. He said the Sabres might’ve won the Stanley Cup in 2006 if they hadn’t run out of defensemen.
Ruff wasn’t sure he wanted to talk but felt he owed some people thanks.
Standing behind a black backdrop, a stark reminder of his unemployment, the 53-year-old only answered several questions before departing.
The next time Ruff’s in the building, it will likely be as an opposing coach. He already misses coaching and plans to do it again. He will, however, keep living in Buffalo.
“It’s hard. It’s a tough game,” Ruff said. “It’s been a strange feeling, but I got to keep going. I love the game.”
But the game didn’t love him back this season. The Sabres imploded following their 2-0 start. Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to Winnipeg, a game in which the home fans booed the Sabres’ wretched effort throughout, was Ruff’s 1,165th and final game as coach.
He had seen the Sabres improving prior to the game.
“To take that step back against Winnipeg, it was like a kick in the gut for me,” Ruff said.
He led practice Wednesday. But when general manager Darcy Regier came to Ruff’s home that afternoon, his close friend didn’t have to say a word.
“I saw him, I said, ‘I know,’” Ruff said. “I said, ‘Don’t say you’re sorry.’ I said, ‘You’ve been my biggest backer all these years.’”
Ruff then drove to the Northtown Center, boarded the team’s bus before it left for Toronto and said he had been fired.
“It was just deadly silent,” Ruff said.
Ruff became the most emotional talking to his family.
“It has been hard on them,” he said.
It’s also been tough on Ruff. But he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
“If you want to know what I’ve been up to, I’ve been driving from Tim Hortons to Tim Hortons rolling up the rim right now,” he cracked.
Since the firing, Ruff has tried piecing together what went wrong, reviewing old notes and other materials.
“It’s like I’m driving myself crazy,” Ruff said.
Ultimately, Ruff thinks the Sabres gave away three games and could’ve been 9-7.
Despite the Sabres’ poor record, he believes the players “gave me all they had.”
“The communication, the input from them to the coaches was awesome,” Ruff said.
Those players, Ruff believes, are still united and supporting each other.
“It’s been hard. It’s been painful,” Ruff said. “They’re working hard at it. The leadership from Jason Pominville to Ryan Miller to Thomas Vanek on down, I know how they feel. I feel their pain at the same time. It’s hard right now.
“But I think better days are right around the corner. I owe a great big thanks to all those players.”
Ruff also owes a lot to Regier. Coaches just don’t last long these days, especially without a championship.
“I know through 16 years there’s probably 99 percent of the GMs in the league would’ve whacked the coach at a certain time,” Ruff said. “We went through some tough stretches where he believed in me and said, ‘You can get these guys through it.’ He’s a good friend. He’s a great hockey man. We went through a lot together, and I’m indebted to him for trusting me in a lot of tough situations.”
Ruff’s also indebted to Western New York, calling the fans “No. 1.” Ruff said their compassion seven years ago as his daughter, Madeleine, battled a brain tumor helped his family get through the ordeal.
Outside the FNC on Friday, fans had attached a large “Thank U Lindy” to a fence.
“I’d like to put my ‘Thank You’ right next to it because it’s a special group,” Ruff said. “It’s a place I call home, always will call home. I don’t feel like I have anything to be ashamed of or any regrets. Western New York is where I’m going to live. I love Western New York.”
Not surprisingly, Ruff ranks not winning a Cup for Sabres owner Terry Pegula and his wife, Kim, as his biggest disappointment.
“They’ll get it right here,” he said. “You got to trust them.”