BUFFALO — Darcy Regier sits down on the couch in Lindy Ruff’s living room. Before Darcy can open his mouth, Lindy says, “I know.” In an unexpected reversal of roles at a time like this, the employee tries to console the boss, reminding him how many times he could have been fired in the past, if not for his loyalty.
Mike Gilbert reads the statement over the shoulder of his assistant. He reads it again, and again. It hasn’t been released yet, and he wants to make absolutely sure it’s perfect. Who’s he kidding? He wants to make absolutely sure it still says what he thought it said the first time.
At 3:02, Lindy walks toward the team bus parked at the Northtown Center in Amherst. The bus is warming up for the relatively quick trip up the QEW to Toronto for the next night’s game. The players are resting after a tough practice, seated and ready to go. Ruff had packed at home but is empty-handed now as he approaches the door. He wonders if the news has already made its way to the players’ smart phones, but as he steps onto the bus, he realizes no one knows. He says his piece among the deadly silence and steps off. The players follow, many, like Thomas Vanek, shaking Ruff’s hand, a few offering hugs. Vanek, leading scorer in the league, tells the only NHL coach he’s known that he’s sorry he couldn’t have given him more.
Back at First Niagara Center, Gilbert gets a call. It’s from Darcy. He looks at the Sabres clock on the wall. It’s 3:11. Buffalo Sabres history is about to be made.
I’m sitting at my computer when I realize the time — 3:12. I’ve missed the beginning of “Schopp and the Bulldog” on GR-55. I’m mad. I don’t like to be late for anything. My old-school radio is full of static today, so I scramble to find a web site that streams the station. I can’t listen on WGR’s site anymore. Something about my Flash software being out of date. I get the stream going, loud and clear. Amazing, all this technology.
LastPommerFan has been refreshing his Twitter feed for most of the afternoon, after news broke late in the morning that the Sabres had waived Cody McCormick. The Internet gossip, fueled by Ruff’s comment that the team is “going to have to try some things,” is that the move could be the precursor to something bigger. He’s waiting for that something, that anything, to signal a real change for his woebegone hockey team when he notices a new tweet from @BuffaloSabres on his screen.
Unlike Gilbert, he has to read it only once. Then his fingers fly into SabreSpace in hopes of posting the scoop of a fan’s lifetime. It’s 3:13.
At WGR 550 studios in Amherst, a mile from the Northtown Center, Mike Schopp’s and Chris Parker’s incredulous rants about the state of the team and the longevity of the coach have only 3 hours and 46 minutes to go when Schopp notices producer Greg Bauch and reporter Matthew Coller frantically waving on the other side of the glass.
Before I can settle into my afternoon routine of agreeing with Schopp, fantasizing about waterboarding Schopp, being impressed by Bulldog, wanting to stick Roby’s pen in Bulldog’s cheek, only half listening while I get some work done, something in Schopp’s voice wakes me up. It’s sharper, louder, more demanding, more authoritative than before, even more so than usual.
“We are hearing… are we really hearing this?” I’m not sure if the question is part of the conversation he’s been having with Bulldog about how Terry Pegula is missing the telltale signs of a franchise in trouble.
In the pause before Schopp’s next question, I understand.
There is news, big news.
“Who’s got it?”
Who’s got the story. What media outlet. Now I’m half afraid something terrible has happened.
“The Sabres have fired Lindy Ruff.”
Schopp’s tone is flat, but somehow startled and matter of fact at the same time. The delivery is perfect. Bauch starts up the jokey “announcement” musical cue played a million times on the show, a reflexive thing for a smartass comedian to do, but this really isn’t the time. Schopp tells him to put the music away. The moment demands seriousness, and the host gets it. I respect him for it.
Both Schopp and Parker admit they’ve lost their breath.
It’s a horrible comparison to make, but, physically, it feels like I’ve been told that a loved one has died. Instantly, my heart starts pounding, my breathing picks up, my head even seems to spin a little.
I open up SabreSpace, thinking I might be the first to post the news. LastPommerFan has already beaten me to it by three minutes.
His post reads:
Darcy Regier announced this afternoon that Lindy Ruff has been relieved of his duties as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. More to follow.
It’s the Sabres’ tweet.
I start reading through the fast and furious replies.
“I’m shaking” writes spndnchz. I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one this far down the rabbit hole of Sabres hockey.
Across social media, young people post how they couldn’t remember a time when Lindy wasn’t the head coach of the Sabres. I need to write something, so I shoot out a quick, “I take no joy in this. Thanks, Lindy. But it’s the start of a new era. It’s exciting.”
Is it that simple? Leave Lindy’s 16 years behind at 3:16 and start writing about a new era at 3:17? Of course not.
Guilt is one of the classic Elisabeth Kubler-Ross emotions when someone dies, and I feel some. I’d been banging the drum hard for Ruff’s firing since probably the end of 07-08, long before most other fans. Probably? Was it 07-08 or not? Holy cow, it wasn’t before that, was it? The fact I’m not sure makes me a little uneasy. Did I really call him an assclown one time? I did. (Or was it asshat?)
I tell myself his recent record spoke for itself, that he did himself in, that his players failed him, that Terry and Ted and Ken pulled the trigger, not me. But I wonder if my voice melded with a million others to finally form a chorus that had to be heard, had to be silenced. Am I part of some Hockey Butterfly Effect? A fan chirps in Pennsylvania and a coach in Clarence loses his job?
In reality, I know that fans didn’t get Ruff fired. I’m not having second thoughts about wanting him gone, and I’m not taking back any of my criticisms, either. (Well, maybe assclown was a bit over the top.) I just feel sorry for the guy, that’s all. He’s flesh and blood, for crying out loud. Ruff has a family that will be hurting, a wife, daughters — sons, one 18 and playing for the Junior Sabres. Their husband and dad just got fired. Even in an affluent suburb, in a household where millions of dollars piled up, in a place like Western New York the idea of losing your job still stings. The Ruffs don’t live in a bubble, not in this big city that feels like a small town. They’ve all known families it’s happened to. Just like somebody knew somebody on Flight 3407.
Maybe it’s one reason Buffalo loved the idea of Coach Lindy Ruff. He never got downsized, never lost the house, never moved to Raleigh, and never would. Now he might, even if on Friday morning he was still talking about the Sabres franchise like this: “We’ll get it right here.” We.
Guilt, and a tinge of sadness for the guy. All those years. All those scars. No Cup. No chance for one now, at least not here. Seeing Ruff this season was like seeing an elderly parent drift away. He lingered. His defeated tone after the Winnipeg game is not the way we want to remember him. We don’t want to remember our mum at the end, we want to remember her carrying us a mile into town, or riding her harness horses. Did Marv have it right?
The Ruff we want seared into our brains is the one who punched the air after Geoff Sanderson and Curtis Brown and Daniel Briere and Tyler Ennis scored overtime goals in the playoffs, or the one who got under Ken Hitchcock’s skin or the one who tackled Billy Smith in that playoff series, in a loss that sent the Sabres to the golf course, after which he said, “I would have jumped off the Grand Island bridge to win the game.”
I wanted him to jump off the Grand Island bridge after the Winnipeg game.
Perhaps one word in the tweet was apt, even if it was meant to soften the blow — relieved.
After five o’clock Darcy Regier addressed the media in the arena. You knew it was going to be tough for the gentle, soft-spoken man, the typical guy who checks his emotions so closely, he could win an Emotional Selke.
Darcy is goaded by Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News to give him a juicy quote, tell him how angry he is at the players for forcing his hand, for making him fire his good friend.
“Someone once told me anger is like a poison, you drink it and expect the other person to die,” Regier says.
Flesh and blood.
It’s easy to create a caricature to hang in effigy on a message board. Darcy the effeminate, wishy-washy eunuch (Chuck Dickerson’s term and one I’ve gleefully repeated as my own), the puppet. Marcy.
But here is a real man standing before us. I’m frustrated by 2, 4 and 7 cutting away to footage of the team while he is talking. I want to see his face. Now I do. It’s pained. His eyes are moist. His voice quakes a little.
Have I become Terry Pegula? Am I growing soft? I can understand how once you’ve spent time with these men, you’d be slow to swing the hatchet. Pegula called Darcy a “good man” on Day One. I scoffed at it then. I see it now.
I’m suddenly pulling for Darcy to succeed. (But I wasn’t before?)
And for Lindy’s name to go to the rafters. And for this little fantasy: the Sabres go on a run like LA and Pittsburgh did after firing their coaches, and Ron Rolston agrees to let the former coach come onto the ice to lift the Cup as a Sabre after all.
Grief causes crazy hallucinations! Who knew.
Regier is asked how Lindy will be remembered. “As a great coach, someone who should be…” The thought trails off.
It does sound like a eulogy.
I love you dad. Regardless of what u do for a living and where u are. I will always love you. You’re the best. It was a great 15 years #loveu
The Sabres will sink or swim now, skate or not skate, win or lose, without Lindy Ruff. To borrow Bulldog’s immediate reaction: Good. And to steal d4rksabre’s portmanteau, I guess I’m sadisfied.
But the old saying comes back to me: Be careful what you wish for. There’s always a price to be paid.
Lindy walked off that bus with one more hockey scar on his face. But he was fine, really. He’s had worse days. In 1986, his little brother Brent never walked off the bus. Wednesday might have felt like a death in the family to me, but it wasn’t. Not even close.
Here lies Lindy Ruff. He was a good coach and a good guy. In Sabres lore, may he rest in peace.