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Firing brings Ruff era to startling end

Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff came to First Niagara Center for practice Wednesday, meeting some of his players and looking at video before heading to a news conference to honor high schoolers who will take the ice downtown next week. It was like any other day in Sabreland.

Ruff then worked his struggling team hard on the ice, a 90-minute practice that was one of the longest of the season. He met the media for 4 minutes, cutting off questions a little earlier than on most days this season. Then he headed out to his home in Clarence.

But General Manager Darcy Regier soon came over with some startling news. After nearly 16 years as the coach of the Sabres, many of them glorious and many of them maddening, Ruff was fired.

Regier said Ruff took the news professionally and asked if he could speak to his players as they gathered at the Northtown Center at Amherst for a bus ride to Toronto for tonight’s game against the Maple Leafs. Ruff boarded the bus and gave the players the word that sent shock waves throughout the National Hockey League when the Sabres released it on their official Twitter feed at about 3 p.m.

“We’re not playing great hockey, and there’s a lot of pressure on the organization,” goaltender Ryan Miller told The Buffalo News in a phone conversation from Toronto. “I can imagine right now ownership or management need to do something. It’s unfortunate. I feel like it’s a situation we put the coach in.

“We weren’t executing. If we were executing but still losing, I think that’s one thing. But we’re not playing the game the right way. It’s too bad. Lindy’s a good guy, loyal guy, good coach. I just feel bad.”

In a packed news conference early Wednesday evening in First Niagara Center, Regier said Rochester Americans coach Ron Rolston will become the Sabres’ interim coach for the rest of the season.

Rolston was to meet with the Sabres in their Toronto hotel Wednesday night and will coach his first NHL game tonight in Air Canada Centre. He will take the ice with them for the first time during their morning skate there at 11:30.

The Sabres are 6-10-1 and mired in 13th place in the Eastern Conference. They are last in the Northeast Division and 27th overall. Ruff’s final game was Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, a defeat that saw First Niagara Center fans loudly boo the team for long stretches.

Ruff called the loss “embarrassing” and, when asked about the fans’ reaction, said, “We’ve got to take a hard look at everything.”

That sent the front office into urgent talks about the coach Wednesday morning. Ruff, meanwhile, was on the ice running practice, trying to fix a team that is one of the worst in the league defensively and has too much of its scoring coming from one forward line.

“I think the last game was, quite honestly, a tipping point,” Regier said. “It was evident to me that we were searching for answers to too many questions.”

Ruff, who was a rookie player with the Sabres in 1979 and ascended to become team captain, was an assistant with the Florida Panthers when he replaced Ted Nolan with the Sabres on July 21, 1997. He turned 53 on Sunday and is the first NHL coach fired this season.

Ruff leaves after the longest run in the Sabres’ 43-year history. He led them to four trips to the Eastern Conference finals and to the 1999 Stanley Cup final, where they lost in six games to the Dallas Stars. He had a career regular-season record of 571-432-84 with 78 ties.

Earlier Wednesday, Sabres owner Terry Pegula declined an interview request by The News to speak on the state of the team in the wake of Tuesday’s disheartening loss. After Ruff’s firing, only Regier met with the media, while Pegula issued a written statement.

“The hockey world knows how I and the entire Buffalo Sabres organization feel about Lindy Ruff not only as a coach but also as a person,” Pegula said. “His long tenure with the Sabres has ended. His qualities have made this decision very difficult. I personally want Lindy to know that he can consider me a friend always.”

A red-eyed Regier, his jaw quivering at times as he spoke, accepted responsibility for the decision. Regier, a disciple of the Bill Torrey-Al Arbour management team that led the New York Islanders to four Stanley Cups in the 1980s, has been loath to consider firing Ruff despite the struggles in recent years.

It’s clear Pegula, team President Ted Black and senior adviser Ken Sawyer were all involved in making sure the GM, whose own status is tenuous as well, made the call to end the longest-running coach/GM combination in Buffalo sports history.

“I made the decision, but these things are not done in a vacuum,” Regier said. “I’m in conversations with Terry, with Ted Black at times, with Ken Sawyer. Like a lot of things here. But if it was Lindy or I and ownership and myself, we’re working as a team.”

Ruff was the second-longest tenured coach in North American pro sports next to Gregg Popovich of the National Basketball Association’s San Antonio Spurs. But Popovich has won four NBA titles. Ruff got to his league’s final only once, and hasn’t been close since co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury left via free agency July 1, 2007.

The Sabres have missed the playoffs in three of the five seasons since and lost in the first round in the other two. They enter tonight’s play 4 points out of the final playoff slot, but Tampa Bay and the New York Rangers both have 17 points and two games in hand on Buffalo.

Many of the Buffalo players have never had another head coach in the NHL.

“I never thought this day would come,” captain Jason Pominville told Rogers Sportsnet upon the team’s arrival in Toronto.

Added winger Thomas Vanek, the NHL’s leading scorer: “He’s a top free agent out there right now, and any organization that’s going to get him is going to get a great coach.”

Rolston, 45, is in his second season in Rochester after the Sabres plucked him from his role as coach of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in 2011. The Amerks are 27-18-2-1, tied for seventh place in the American Hockey League’s Western Conference. Last year, they were 36-26-10-4 and finished seventh in the West.

“His teams play with structure and discipline,” Regier said. “They have a good work ethic. He has a good hockey club down there right now, and he has them playing good hockey. I think you’ll see those strengths.”

Regier deflected a question about whether he was angry at the players for underperforming so badly in a season in which their owner has spent nearly $65 million on payroll.

“I’m disappointed in myself. I’m disappointed for Lindy,” Regier said. “When I see the players, I’m disappointed for them, too. We should all be disappointed. As far as anger. We have too much work to do. We can’t go there.”

After his rough practice Wednesday, Ruff was gruff with his answers and made the unusual admission that things had to change.

“If we’re going to be like this, it isn’t working the way we’re going,” he said. “I think the indication today is, we’re going to have to try some things, and that’s what we’re talking about.”

No one knew that a new coach was going to be one of the items on the agenda.