Lindy Ruff began coaching the Sabres in 1997. ©2013, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Sabres’ regression ultimately doomed Lindy Ruff

BUFFALO – Darcy Regier walked in looking shaken. The Sabres general manager broke down a couple times while discussing the difficult decision to fire his close friend Lindy Ruff, the NHL’s longest-tenured coach.

Regier and Ruff had been synonymous with each other since 1997, when a rookie GM gave a young coaching prospect his dream job. Together, they experienced all the highs and lows of the NHL, somehow managing to keep their gigs despite limited success in recent seasons.

But Wednesday afternoon, with the Sabres (6-10-1) mired in 13th place in the Eastern Conference and last in the Northeast Division, Regier drove to Ruff’s home in Clarence and relieved him of his duties after 15 seasons.

Rochester Americans coach Ron Rolston is the Sabres’ interim coach for rest of the season.

“Very difficult. Extremely difficult,” Regier told a packed media room at the First Niagara Center about his conversation with Ruff. “But this is professional sports. He understood it. He was extremely professional. It’s a tough thing. It really is.”

Why did this happen now? The Sabres have been struggling for weeks, even years, having missed the postseason three times in five seasons, including last year.

“It was made for the goal of making the playoffs,” said Regier, who noted the team’s high expectations. “Unfortunately, (we had) a lack of progress. I think we were making some strides. But in the end, for every two steps forward it was one step back and sometimes not that.

“Unfortunately, this is the time of year when the coaching is probably the thing that’s evaluated the most.”

Regier called Tuesday’s embarrassing 2-1 loss to Winnipeg, a game in which the home crowd constantly booed the Sabres’ wretched effort, the “tipping point.” The defeat proved to Regier the Sabres were “searching for answers to too many questions.”

Still, Ruff led a 90-minute practice Wednesday and addressed the media.

Ruff’s last quote as coach, a response to a question about winning with the team’s current $65 million lineup, sounds ominous.

“If we’re going to be like this, it isn’t working the way we’re going,” Ruff said. “I think the indication today is we’re going to have to try some things, and that’s what we’re talking about.”

But as that was going on, Regier was meeting with the Sabres’ brass.

Regier didn’t feel comfortable letting Ruff coach again tonight in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.

After Regier fired Ruff, the former coach drove to the Northtown Center, where Sabres players had boarded a bus for Toronto. Ruff got on, addressed his old team a final time and then left. Some handshakes and hugs followed.

Ruff, who played 608 games for the Sabres, coached another 1,165 (571-438-78-84) and took the team to the 1999 Stanley Cup final, then began a new part of his hockey life.

NHL teams changed coaches 170 times during Ruff’s tenure, which began July 21, 1997. His 571 wins with one team stand second only to Al Arbour’s 740 with the Islanders.

“A lot of guys are emotional,” Sabres captain Jason Pominville told Sportsnet in Toronto. “It was a tough go.”

How does Regier want Ruff remembered?

“As a great coach,” he said.

Regier then began fighting back tears.

“First of all, I think he’ll get an opportunity if he wants to quickly,” he said. “I think people who’ve been fired, you have an opportunity to use it as a springboard. I suppose you can sit on the springboard if he wants to. He’ll have lots of opportunities.”

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller called Ruff someone who’s always been an influence and “been there and believed in us.”

“He’s been a Sabre for such a long time we feel bad this is how it played out for him,” Miller said. “We had much higher expectations and much higher goals. We still hope to reach them but obviously he’s not going to be a part of that. I just feel really sorry for that because no one cares more than Lindy.”

Conversations about Ruff’s future with higher-ups, including owner Terry Pegula, got serious “as of late,” Regier said. He was still speaking with Ruff about the team, too.

Ultimately, Regier insisted, “it was my decision” to fire Ruff.

“I made this decision,” he said. “But these things are not done in a vacuum. So I’m in conversation with Terry, with (president) Ted Black, at times with Ken Sawyer, who’s a senior advisor. … You’re working as a team.”

Regier, who wouldn’t discuss his future, believes Ruff was still reaching his team despite its terrible record, poor defensive play and the regression of some players, most notably Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford, the NHL’s best line late last season.

“He didn’t lose the team in any way in respect to communication,” Regier said. “In fact, communication has never been better. So there were huge strides done in that regard. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate to the ice.

“For whatever reason, we couldn’t get any traction, especially defensively. He felt at times it was … really hard to get a finger on.”

Nonetheless, Regier said everyone should feel responsible for Ruff’s dismissal.

“I’ll start with I’m a part of it,” he said. “Players are a part of it. There’s really no one in the organization (that isn’t).”

In Regier’s mind, Ruff’s a legend. He recalled phoning Scotty Bowman, hockey’s all-time winningest coach, when he interviewed Ruff. Bowman said Ruff reminded him of a four-time Cup winner.

“I said, ‘Scotty, who would you compare him to?’ and he said, ‘Darcy, he’s a lot like Al Arbour … with a sense of humor,’ and I think Scott was right.”

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