Lindy Ruff could have become the coaching equivalent of an attractive unrestricted free agent next summer, when his initial contract with the Buffalo Sabres expired.
Teams might have thrown big financial packages at him in an attempt to lure him away. Ruff gave up that possibility Wednesday when he signed a contract extension with the Sabres. He's not scheduled to go anywhere until 2003 at the earliest.
"The Buffalo area was home for 12 or 13 years before my coaching career began," Ruff said at a news conference. "The offer that was made was a very fair offer. I was thrilled. It gives me a chance to stay in the same city for at least four more years."
The extension is for three years, and is scheduled to begin when Ruff's initial coaching contract with the Sabres expires next summer. The new contract could be worth as much as $2.4 million by the time it is finished. Ruff reportedly earned $325,000 last season and was slated to be boosted to $350,000 for the current season.
That last number was well below the average salary of head coaches in the National Hockey League. The performance by Ruff and the Sabres in the first 1 1/2 years of his coaching tenure here made Ruff's deal look like a bargain. Buffalo reached the conference finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1998 for the first time in 18 seasons, and the Sabres led the Eastern Conference in late December of last year.
"I was first asked about it (a new contract) after the start we had last year," Ruff said. "I said then I wasn't interested in having anything redone. There was a big fuss made about what I was making, where I was at, and how the team had done. The only statement I made was that going into my last year I'd like to have an extension. You never know what happens. It's typical for the business that when you go into the last year a lot of teams extend their coach's contract."
Ruff only helped his bargaining position by guiding the Sabres into the Stanley Cup finals last June. He has a career record of 73-57-34 and a playoff record of 24-12. As the 1999-2000 season approached, Ruff didn't want to be a "lame-duck coach" who was entering the final year of his contract, and Sabres general manager Darcy Regier was anxious not to let him get away.
"Lindy has a real strong feeling for what it takes to obtain success," Regier said. "Players like that type of environment. They like to play for that type of coach.
"The development process is something that Lindy understands but not all coaches understand. If I go to him and say that a player needs more work and we have to leave him down there (in the minor leagues), he's respectful of that. That conversation goes back and forth. That's the type of relationship you have to have, and a lot of organizations don't have it. You have a lot better chance of success with two people working together than you do with just one person."
The bargaining over the deal was relatively simple, described as "somewhere between fair and easy" by Ruff.
"There was conversation from how long it (the extension) was going to be," he said. "The dollar amount was never really a big issue. The offer I got from the beginning was more than fair. It was more a matter of the number of years, the size of the commitment they wanted to make.
"I didn't demand the most bang for my buck. I wanted something that was fair for myself. I wanted to give my family some stability and some security. If I'm happy with the deal, that's the only person that should care. And I'm very happy with it."
Sabres chief executive officer Tim Rigas said about the contract, "It's intended to be a strong message (of support). Hopefully we conveyed to him our confidence and our desire to continue our relationship long term, but this certainly is a public statement endorsing the coaching staff and management."
The signing gives Ruff some security as the Sabres approach a huge change in their roster, the retirement of all-star goalie Dominik Hasek after the upcoming season. In addition, assistant coach Mike Ramsey -- a close friend of Ruff's -- has indicated that he probably will leave the Sabres to return to private business after the 1999-2000 season.
In addition, the contract extension gives Ruff a chance to buck a trend for short coaching tenures in the NHL. Only one NHL coach, Detroit's Scott Bowman, has been in his current position for more than four years. Ruff was hired in July, 1997, and already ranks 12th of 28 NHL coaches in seniority. No Sabre coach has ever been behind the bench for more than 3 1/2 consecutive years (John Muckler).
Ruff knows that players have a reputation for tuning out their coaches after a few years on the job. He said he'll do his best to prevent that from happening here.
"You can't be the same guy every day," Ruff said. "You have to make it fun for them. You have to make it demanding for them. There are times when you have to be right in their faces, and there are times when you have to back off. I've had the ability so far to do both. You have to push the right buttons to get the players going in the right direction. Is that going to happen every time? I don't think I'm going to be right all the time. . . . There's not a lot you can do to change the attitude of the players. You can just do all the normal things that coaches do."
The Sabres Wednesday assigned 16 players to their affiliate in Rochester, which begins its training camp today. The players are forwards Jeremy Adduono, Craig Brunel, Jason Cipolla, Randy Cunneyworth, Craig Fisher, Ales Kotalik, Francois Methot, Brad Moran, Scott Nichol, Kamil Piros and Darren Van Oene; defensemen Doug Houda, Dimitri Kalinin and Luc Theoret; and goalies Gene Chiarello and Dieter Kochan. That leaves 32 players on the Buffalo roster.
The Sabres are scheduled to practice at the Amherst Pepsi Center today and Friday, starting at 9 a.m. On Saturday, Buffalo will bus to Cleveland for a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Those same teams will play Sunday night in Erie, Pa. That game begins at 6 p.m.