It's Ruff justice

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 8:31 AM ET

There was a time when Lindy Ruff didn't think he'd last 10 weeks, let alone 10 years.

He had just been given the keys to the Buffalo Sabres, after they'd just been yanked from the immensely popular Ted Nolan, and immediately found himself spinning his wheels in the muck.

"Two months into it, in my first year, things were pretty dicey," said Ruff, who'll be coaching the Eastern Conference All-Star team later this month in Dallas. "We didn't win a game all pre-season, for starters, and going into December things still weren't going very well.

DIDN'T LOOK GOOD

"Taking over a team that had the success it had, I really felt that if we didn't get this turned around and start putting something together I might be very short for this job.

"We ended up having a great December and a good playoff (advancing to the conference final), but it was looking pretty bleak for a while."

And here he is, the longest serving coach in the NHL, coaching one of the best teams in the NHL - the picture of longevity in a profession where there's no such thing.

"Sometimes you feel like you're on the TV show Survivor," he laughed, adding any coach with any roots at all can start by thanking his GM.

"From the top down, the philosophy here has been to work and grow with the people in the organization. At times that's very tough to stick to, in our sport or any other sport. There are going to be tough times, but (stability) is something we've worked hard at."

In Buffalo, they've had to work harder than most. Ruff and GM Darcy Regier guided the franchise through the darkest days in its history, struggling to keep it together as it fell apart under former owner John Rigas (who would later be sentenced to 15 years in prison for fraud).

The Sabres declared bankruptcy, missed the playoffs three years in a row with a gutted roster and became a source of embarrassment in a once-proud hockey city.

The only constants were Ruff and Regier.

"Going through all that transition, with the bankruptcy and the ownership change was tough," said the 46-year-old Warburg, Alberta native.

"And it would have been easy for a new owner to go another direction, but (billionaire B. Thomas Golisano) liked what he saw and heard and wanted to stay the course. As it turned out it's good that the right owner ended up with the team."

And kept the right people in charge, as it turned out.

EVEN BETTER

Two seasons after a patchwork roster stumbled to a 27-45-10 record, Ruff and Regier, with the foresight to build the team for the new NHL, set a franchise record with 52 wins and 110 points last season and probably would have won the first championship in Buffalo history were it not for a cruel run of injuries on defence. This year, they look even better.

"I give quite a bit of credit to luck, and a lot of credit to the fact that we've been able to work through some situations when we've really been challenged and succeeded," said Ruff, adding the whole journey has made him a much better coach.

"I don't think there's any comparison between now and 10 years ago. I don't think you can become a really solid coach until you've lived a lot of the experiences. You have to live through it and learn from it to become better."

It's been a remarkable transformation, but sometimes his 10 years in Buffalo feel like 50.

"It's been a tremendous turnaround," said Ruff. "The attitude of the city and the fans, to go from half-packed arena to jam-packed every night and to have the quality of players playing the the type of game we've been playing, a pretty exciting style. We don't have much to complain about, do we?"

All that's left is the championship that's eluded him his whole career.

"That would be huge," he grinned.

"The city is craving for a championship."

So is he.

"I've been in the business for over 25 years, you're always in search of that one prize. Sometimes it takes people longer than others."


Videos

Photos