Lindy Ruff loves Western New York. He always will. A place becomes home after 26 years.
He has been quick to establish roots in Texas, though.
The former Sabres coach returned to First Niagara Center on Monday for the first time since his February firing, and he was greeted by friends, former co-workers and a crowd that delivered a long, emotional standing ovation. Following his first news conference – a typically humorous encounter – Ruff extended his gratitude.
“Thank you, great seeing y’all,” said Ruff, who chuckled immediately upon realizing he’d used Lone Star State dialect. “Y’all.”
Ruff has fit in well as the new coach of the Dallas Stars, but beneath the dialect and green color scheme is a Buffalo guy. It was evident during the first commercial break as fans shed tears and Ruff bit his lip to avoid joining them.
The Sabres played a video tribute to the team legend on the scoreboard, a highlight-filled package that started with a goal and his fight with New York Islanders goaltender Billy Smith. There may have been sound to accompany the video, but it was drowned out by the applause of fans. They quickly rose to their feet, one with a sign behind the bench that read, “We still love you Lindy,” and they cheered long after the video ended.
“You look around, a lot of good memories,” Ruff said. “I have nothing but good memories.”
His return started with a mix of smiling faces and awkward moments. Longtime security officer James McDuffie greeted him at the door with a hug and a chat. The coach then ran into a few of his former players, including goaltender Ryan Miller, before heading to the visiting dressing room.
“Just strange coming in and going to the other side,” Ruff said. “It’s a funny feeling when you’re seeing your ex-players that you’ve been around for a long time and seeing Ryan for a long time. It’s great to see, and in some ways it just feels awkward.”
It was weird seeing Ruff on the opposing bench after he spent 16 years coaching Buffalo and a decade playing for the organization.
He remains a fan – though obviously he wasn’t one Monday night as he guided his team to a 4-3 victory.
“I can root in between games,” Ruff said. “They’re in the East, and I root for the city, and I root for the team. I want to see them do well.”
He said “them” in that instance, but he admits he has used “we” at times while talking about his longtime club. He’ll open the National Hockey League stats booklet to “Buffalo” occasionally instead of “Dallas.”
He can’t help but notice the Sabres’ last-place standing and dismal numbers during the latest rebuilding period.
“I understand what has happened,” he said. “I’ve watched my share of games. I watched games on the way here. I watch some of the young players play, and I understand where they’re at. It’s tough to see where the team is at in the standings, but I watch how these players play and how some of the young players play, and I think there’s a lot of promise there. I know it is really tough, but I understand where they’re at.”
Dallas entered the game with a 4-5-1 record, so it hasn’t been easy sailing for Ruff, either. He says he has made alterations to his coaching style, but at least one thing hasn’t changed.
“He’s trying to have fun every day,” Stars defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. “He’s very serious about what he does. He’s a professional, but at the same time he’s trying to have fun. I think that carries on to the team.”
Ruff still regrets not being able to win a Stanley Cup in Buffalo. For a long time after his firing, he went over last season’s losses and picked out things that could have been different. “That process, I got to the point where we weren’t quite good enough and weren’t getting the job done,” he said.
That page has finally turned. He has a new job and has meshed with the Stars’ ownership and management. He’s living a dream as big as Texas.
“We thought we had restaurants in Buffalo? They’ve got restaurants there,” Ruff said. “Every second place is a restaurant, and my challenge is to try and eat at a different one every night.
“The transition has been good. Living has been easy.”