If Ron Rolston delivered the same message to the players as he did to the media in his first full day as the new head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, then they were basically told they are a lazy bunch.
“From what I saw, it was just a lot of shortcuts,” Rolston said Thursday morning, a few hours before his first NHL game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when he was asked what he thought the trouble is with the struggling Sabres.
By shortcuts, Rolston said, he meant players “resting” during their shifts, “stuff you have to eliminate if you want to be a good team.”
However, this does not mean Rolston, 46, is as blunt as the man he replaced, Lindy Ruff, who was fired Wednesday. He described himself as a communicator, saying it is his job to get the message to the players. And those who have played for him say he is an excellent teacher who has the ability to instill confidence in players but is not afraid to put someone in his place if it’s necessary.
“He made me the player I am today,” said winger James van Riemsdyk, the Leafs’ leading scorer who played for Rolston when he was head coach of the U.S. under-17 national team in 2009-10. “He took me from someone who had a lot of raw ability and moulded me. He lets guys play to their strengths. Pretty much everyone loved playing for him.”
USA Hockey’s national program is located in Ann Arbor, Mich., which means the 16-year-olds who made up the bulk of the under-17 team were living away from home for the first time. Van Riemsdyk said Rolston was able to help the players deal with issues like homesickness as well as learning to play hockey at an elite level.
“He was good at making everyone feel comfortable and confident out there,” van Riemsdyk said. “He definitely gave me a kick in the butt every once in a while when he thought I needed it. Obviously at the time you don’t like that kind of stuff but looking back I think there is a method to his madness and I appreciate everything he did for me.”
Rolston said the opportunity to coach the Sabres came out of the blue. He was at the Rochester Americans’ arena on Wednesday afternoon preparing for an American Hockey League game that night against the Texas Stars when Sabres general manager Darcy Regier called. Rolston had just finished talking to Regier about the promotion to the Sabres of forward Kevin Porter and figured it was another call about the player. But Regier said he had Sabres owner Terry Pegula on the line as well.
“It happened pretty quickly,” Rolston said. “[Regier] said I wouldn’t be coaching Rochester last night. It was good that I was sitting down because I wasn’t expecting it. You work your whole career to get an opportunity like this.
“I was in Rochester a year and a half and wasn’t sure when the opportunity would come.”
However, it was not as if Rolston was in his second decade as a minor-league coach wondering if he would ever get a shot at the big time. This is actually just his third job as a head coach and it is just his second one coaching players who are paid to play the game.
In those 18 months in Rochester, Rolston compiled a 63-44-17 regular-season record. Before that, he was a head coach for seven years for USA Hockey and won three gold medals at the world under-18 championships. The highest Rolston ever got as a player was U.S. college hockey and his only professional experience was one season in the ECHL.
However, Rolston is well aware of what life is like in the NHL thanks to his younger brother. Brian Rolston spent 19 years in the NHL before retiring last summer and was one of the first people to call with some advice.
“He’s played for a lot of great coaches in his career,” Ron Rolston said. “He just talked about the basics of what message he would send [to the players].”
Like most NHL teams, the Sabres make sure their farm team plays the same style as the big club so Rolston is not promising a new blue print.
“There’s not going to be any major changes,” he said. “The players know what needs to be done. The responsibility falls on [the coaches] to make sure they get the message.”
Officially, Rolston is the interim head coach through the rest of this season. He is going to work hard to make that a permanent position.
“Yeah, without question,” he said, “that’s certainly the goal.”