By Eric DuVall
Niagara Gazette — Like many, when I learned the news of Lindy Ruff's firing, I was stunned but not all that surprised.
Not unlike the death of a someone terminally ill, you know it's coming but when it happens you're still taken aback.
And it does feel a bit like a funeral in Sabreland right now, doesn't it? Part of me wants to hug Sabres fans and say "at least Lindy isn't suffering anymore." Mostly, I'm left to shake my head and try to imagine what a Sabres team will look like without Ruff there.
Fans could be forgiven if they can't picture it. After 16 seasons as coach, after 10 years as a fan-favored player and captain, there is arguably no single person more closely identified with the Buffalo Sabres than Ruff. He was behind the bench for more than half the games in franchise history, after all.
Many will argue Ruff had overstayed his welcome. With only two playoff appearances in the last five seasons and one-and-done turns when they did make the postseason, it's easy to make the case.
But for a franchise that's as insular as any in pro sports, there was a staunch belief that there wasn't a better guy available to turn it around than the one already in the chair. Tuesday's game in Winnipeg was quite obviously the straw that broke the camel's back. The utterly uninspired performance from a team loaded with high-priced players had Ruff's Sabres rightly booed off their home ice.
Fans were angry — and they had a point.
Never one to mince words (except where injuries were involved), Ruff was reminded by Buffalo News beat writer Mike Harrington of the team's standing. "This fan base clearly hates this team. Do you understand their reaction to this point with the way these guys are playing?"
"I totally understand it," Ruff replied with more than a hint of resignation. "I'm embarrassed."
Something of a cottage industry has cropped up among local media searching for the cleverest metaphor for the length of Ruff's tenure. (My contribution: He's outlasted one-and-a-half popes.) But wrapped up in the snark and genuine reflection is this hard truth: For 16 seasons, Ruff and the Sabres have hit various low points. By virtue of their decision to can a coach who's practically a hockey god in Buffalo, the Sabres have acknowledged they're at their lowest point in a generation.
Of course that isn't exactly true. The Rigas affair, the bankruptcy, the months when Gary Bettman stood in lieu of an owner, losing Drury and Briere. Those were all pretty bad.
So what makes this different?
For starters, this latest catastrophe is clearly on Ruff's head. It was his job to get players on the same page. For reasons unknown to anyone outside that fancy new locker room — and probably to a degree unknown to those on the inside, too — he failed.
Ruff was given a 16-year leash largely because everyone — three owners, all those players, media, the fans — acknowledged there simply wasn't a better guy to coach the Buffalo Sabres. In hindsight, the only way Lindy Ruff was ever going to lose his job was if it became apparent anyone would be better.
Tapping Ron Rolston as Ruff's interim replacement for the remainder of this season makes sense. It's a long enough job interview that they'll know what they've got in him. He'll provide a measure of continuity in a season where hope isn't entirely dead, but is certainly on life support. He also offers a fresh set of eyes on a roster that has far more talent than their combined efforts reflect in the standings.
Rumors had swirled for months that players had tired of Ruff's tough-guy act. Derek Roy said as much after last season and was summarily traded — a sign management was more committed to Ruff than any one player. It seems rather obvious now Roy wasn't the only one who had tuned out the coach.
Credit owner Terry Pegula and general manager Darcy Regier for making a decision many, myself included, thought was beyond them. An owner who's truly committed to winning the Stanley Cup had to level with the obvious: The time for Lindy Ruff to lead them there had passed. He simply had to go.
It's a shame. No one wanted to see Buffalo reach the mountaintop more than Ruff. He's literally given a lifetime to this franchise, this city.
It's time for someone else to give it a shot.Contact Tonawanda News managing editor Eric DuVall at firstname.lastname@example.org.