There is one NHL axiom no head coach can escape, not even Lindy Ruff, one who had been around longer than anyone else: The players have to buy what you are selling.
By the time the Buffalo Sabres turned in yet another dispirited effort last Tuesday – losing 2-1 to a mediocre Winnipeg Jets team for their 10th loss in 15 games – it was clear to everyone the players were no longer listening to Ruff, who had been behind the Buffalo bench for 15 years and seven months.
It was clear to the sellout crowd, which booed them off the ice, and maybe it was finally clear to Darcy Regier, whose first major act after being named Sabres general manager in 1997 was to hire Ruff.
On Wednesday, he fired him.
Then again, that is the one question looming over this move: Was it Regier’s idea or did it come from Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who has supported Regier and Ruff since he bought the NHL team two years ago? It was just one month ago, Pegula announced he’d given Regier a contract extension, much to the chagrin of local media.
Regier danced around that question at an afternoon press conference Wednesday. That in itself was an answer.
“Ultimately, it was my decision,” Regier said finally, adding it was done after talks with Pegula and team president Ted Black.
Ron Rolston was promoted from the AHL farm team to be the Sabres interim head coach. He will be behind the bench Thursday, when the Sabres play the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.
Regier said Rolston is the coach for the rest of the 2013 season. It is still not clear if Regier will survive past that as GM. (Pegula no longer gives interviews.)
No matter which suit pulled the trigger, the decision was driven by the players. The other old saying about coaches is it’s easier to replace one coach than it is 20 players. Or, more realistically, it is easier to pay one coach $1-million not to coach than it is to unload $65-million (U.S.) in player contracts.
Ruff, 53, had a remarkable run in Buffalo. He played for the Sabres from 1979-89, and, in the four major North American professional leagues, the only current head coach to hold his job longer is Gregg Popovich of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs (17 seasons).
Since Ruff was hired on July 21, 1997, there have been 170 coaching changes in the NHL alone.
But by last Tuesday’s loss, it was clear Ruff was being tuned out. Even the players admitted they were no longer working hard. So Ruff became the 171st coaching change.
“People, they just want you to work hard,” Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said. “They just want you to give them something to cheer about. We’ve been letting them down.”
Ruff clearly knew his fate shortly before he met with Buffalo reporters after practice Wednesday. He talked about forward Cody McCormick being placed on waivers, hinted more changes were coming, then cut the session short.
A few hours later, the announcement came the way it usually does these days, on the Sabres’ Twitter account.
However, Ruff will only be unemployed for as long as he chooses. He is one of the most respected coaches in hockey, one whose acumen kept the Sabres in contention over the years despite steady turnover of the roster.
Ruff leaves the Sabres with a 571-432-78-84 regular-season record and took them to the 1999 Stanley Cup final, losing on the infamous Brett Hull toe-in-the-crease goal.
But even Ruff’s smarts could not overcome a series of bad personnel moves by Regier. Pegula opened his wallet and the Sabres payroll ballooned to $65-million in the last two seasons, but they have missed the playoffs in three of the last five years. High-priced acquisitions such as forward Ville Leino and defenceman Robyn Regehr failed to live up to their salaries. Defenceman Christian Ehrhoff is the best of the team’s big-money players, but that is only by comparison to the rest.
It was two years ago, when Pegula appeared at his first media conference as Sabres owner. It was a dewy affair, with Pegula promising a single-minded dedication to winning the Stanley Cup and doing the necessary spending – welcome news to Buffalo ears.
But Pegula’s loyalty to Regier and Ruff quickly ended the honeymoon with the fans and media. The watch is now on for the other half of the tandem to fall.