Boos rained down on center ice as the clock wound toward zero and Lindy Ruff raised his eyes toward the Jumbotron, toward the sky as if in solemn prayer for an answer.
Another embarrassment, another loss on home ice, another defeat at the hands of a weak opponent. What game it was doesn’t matter; it could’ve been any game over the past several seasons. Seasons that were, for the most part, marred by loss, injury and futile playoff hopes.
On Wednesday Feb. 20, after so many years and so much strife on the part of Buffalo and the Sabres organization, the longest tenured coach in the NHL lost his job, turning Ruff into a scapegoat for the flaws of an ineffective general manager and incompetent ownership.
For all his years in Buffalo, Ruff wasn’t without fault. He held a flawed appreciation for certain players, keeping them close and playing them in crucial situations even as they aged and their numbers deteriorated. He misused players who couldn’t buy his message, one that he often failed to adapt enough to make players respond to him. But it was not Ruff who built this current Sabres team, which sits at 13th in the Eastern Conference, nor the one that missed the playoffs three of the last five years.
The general manager is at fault. Darcy Regier should be packing up his office alongside Ruff. Regier’s love of his own draft picks blinds him to reality. Too long are players – prone to injury, of mediocre talent and of inconsistency – lingering on the Sabres’ roster. Look no further than center Jochen Hecht and defenseman Andrej Sekera. Only after last year’s embarrassment at the hands of the Boston Bruins – a game that left Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller bowled over and concussed from Boston left winger Milan Lucic – did Regier seem to recognize that his “core” of players were incapable of bringing home the Stanley Cup.
Ruff’s legacy will be remembered by Regier’s mistakes. In 2006 and 2007, the Sabres made it deep into the playoffs, each time reaching the Eastern Conference finals, an achievement for any team. What is remembered about those years was the loss of captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere in free agency, a product of Regier’s botched operation. The following year, with no further additions to the team, the Sabres crashed out of the playoffs and stayed out for two years straight. That is what so many Sabres fans remember from those years, not those Eastern Conference finals.
The management isn’t committed to winning and has protected Regier. When Tom Golisano saved the team from bankruptcy, he never intended them to be anything more than a profit. He was an owner concerned with the bottom line, not with winning. Things changed when Terry Pegula came to town.
Pegula preached hope and an abundance of Stanley Cups and was not afraid to spend his money to obtain this dream. The first summer with Pegula as owner, Regier spent the money Pegula promised, but it was all for naught. After missing the playoffs and hurtling downward in the standings this year, the hopes Pegula once preached soured in the minds of Buffalo fans, creating yet another disappointment that Ruff will be, somewhat undeservingly, blamed for.
Ruff was the martyr for all these years of tepid, unconvincing hockey. I am in no way happy to see him go. Last year, if Ruff had been fired, I would’ve been more devastated than if my favorite player had been traded. Ruff was a Buffalo icon, a player’s coach and a leader for so many years. His firing will not change that. It will only save him from further detriment to himself and to the team. I have no doubt that Ruff will win a championship with another team. In fact, I expect it. This firing was Regier’s last chance to save himself and win over fans. Buffalo had one of the best coaches in the NHL for over a decade. The shame of it all is that there was never a general manager there to use him.