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Lindy Ruff, on the day he was hired to coach the Buffalo Sabres, said he wanted to be here for many years. As he starts his third season the Sabres are about to add three more.

Ruff in a few days will sign a three-year contract extension worth nearly $2 million, putting his salary on par with the NHL average for coaches.

"I'm very happy," Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said. "It's very important from a lot of different vantage points. The players and the community can see we're prepared to make a commitment from the job he's done."

Ruff, who has one season remaining on a three-year deal, guided the team to the Eastern Conference finals after the 1997-98 season and the Stanley Cup finals last spring. After two seasons behind the bench he leads the franchise in postseason wins with 24.

Ruff will make about $350,000 this season. The extension calls for him to earn close to the league average, about $600,000 this season, through 2002-2003.

"I've always said I wanted to stay in Buffalo," Ruff said this past week. "I like living here. My wife (Gaye) likes living here, our kids like living here."

It was a good way for the Sabres to enter training camp, which opens this morning with an optional practice in the Amherst Pepsi Center. The first mandatory workout is Monday. The Sabres reported for physicals Saturday morning in Marine Midland Arena.

The players had 77 days off between when Game Six of the Stanley Cup finals ended in the early hours of June 20 and today.

Never before in the NHL has such a long season been followed by such a short offseason.

"You're not as out of shape as you are when you finish early. That's one good thing," defenseman Jason Woolley said. "Mentally, it's a little tougher challenge. You feel like you should probably be having another few weeks to a month off. Last year, we got really darned close. That's what you get for going that far."

The reason they scheduled the optional workout for this morning was to abide by a rule in the collective bargaining agreement that requires six practices before the first exhibition game. Buffalo opens the preseason Saturday against the Boston Bruins in Rochester.

The Sabres start the regular season Oct. 5 in Nashville, where they will begin defending their Eastern Conference title. After watching their playoff run end in June with a controversial goal in the Cup finals, some players couldn't wait to return to work.

"A month and a half ago, I was itching to get back to this," captain Michael Peca said. "For a lot of us, it's the first time we went through a long season and a short offseason. Hey, when you have four months off, camp still stinks. It's a tedious three weeks, and we just have to get through it."

The first practice will be held without two key members of the organization -- Ruff, who is attending a wedding in Western Canada, and goalie Dominik Hasek. Hasek was scheduled to fly back to Western New York on Saturday night after his son completed a placement examination for school in the Czech Republic.

Hasek also is recovering from groin and hernia injuries that plagued him last year, but the Sabres did not expect him to miss much work. He might be available Monday if he passes his physical and feels comfortable getting back to practice.

There also are six unsigned free agents -- Miroslav Satan, Vaclav Varada, Curtis Brown, Jay McKee, Rhett Warrener and Wayne Primeau -- who are not expected for the start of camp. It's possible a few of them won't be on hand for the start of the season. A seventh, Stu Barnes, is coming to camp without a contract.

"We want to get the players signed, obviously," Regier said. "We want to get them in camp and get that part behind us and get focused on the season and the expectations we have for the season. The pressure certainly builds as you go through training camp."

Barnes and the Sabres have agreed in principle on a salary for this year of $1.5 million, which is what he earned last year with Pittsburgh before he was traded to Buffalo. Barnes is insured should he suffer an injury in camp.

The biggest hurdle is reaching agreement on his bonuses. Barnes' contract with Pittsburgh included several incentive clauses that the Sabres don't want to duplicate.

"I just wanted to come to camp, get in shape and get ready for the start of the season," Barnes said. "I think with me being here I would be better prepared than if I wasn't, that's all."

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