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RUFF COMES ARMED WITH COACHING SAVVY AND A SENSE OF HUMOR

Somewhere near the midpoint of a difficult news conference explaining why a man with no head coaching experience and no coach-of-the-year trophy was being given a multiyear contract to coach the Buffalo Sabres, Lindy Ruff took matters into his own hands.

He told a joke.

It wasn't much of a joke, just a funny story about a trip to an office supply store with Roger Neilson, one of his many coaching mentors.

Once his playing days were over, Ruff had asked Neilson what he needed to become to become a head coach in the NHL.

Neilson told Ruff to accompany him to the office supply store where he could buy a stack of file folders.

All in all it probably wouldn't get a canned laugh on "Frasier," but given the circumstances down at The Bank these days it got people off the subject of Ted Nolan and the still unanswered questions as to why the reigning winner of the Jack Adams Trophy isn't coaching the Sabres any more.

It also got them talking to and about his successor.

It's always a good sign when a man can lower the tension level in a roomful of wary and jaded media types with just a lighthearted story that pokes a little fun at himself and his profession. If a sense of humor was important down at One Taxpayer Place, they would have made Ruff president, chief executive officer, executive vice president of sales, director of marketing and chairman of the board at the Main Street ATM.

Instead, he's just the coach -- and an inexperienced one at that -- but he just might be the right one for a team and an organization that desperately needs to start over again.

Don't get the wrong impression. Ruff isn't better than Nolan and he'll have to go a very long way (in a very short time) to get the players to respond to him in the same positive manner they responded to the not rehired coach. He also has the added disadvantage of not knowing the players and what makes them tick. And he'll be handcuffed, at least in the early stages, by the fact the new general manager doesn't know the players any better than he does.

Worse still, Ruff inherits a slew of problems Nolan never had, the main one being whether or not the players will play in front of goalie Dominik Hasek, the man many of them believe is the reason Nolan isn't coaching them anymore.

But in addition to his sense of humor and his way of working a crowd, Ruff got another message across Monday. He showed he knows a lot about the coaching side of the game.

In every interview he made it clear that his years under Neilson, perhaps the best teaching coach the game has ever known, weren't wasted and that he learned a few things about schemes, systems and even when and where not to play the dreaded neutral-zone trap.

He was quick to point out the valuable lessons he learned playing under Scott Bowman and working under Bill Torrey, Bobby Clarke and Doug MacLean. These are big names in the hockey business, a clear indication that Ruff's time in and then away from Buffalo was time well spent.

The Lindy Ruff most Sabres fans remember -- a marginal NHLer with more heart than talent, and more muscle than finesse -- showed himself Monday to be a changed man.

The new Ruff knows there's more to hockey than just punching Billy Smith or whacking at Wayne Cashman. He can actually explain the reasoning behind playing a system in your own end and the merits of a 2-1-2 zone vs. a 1-2-2. He knows when to pressure the puck on the sidewalls and why it makes sense to use the forecheck to create offense while supporting the defense.

He's more temperate now, the finished product of a lifetime in hockey. Added to the right mix of humor, emotion, work ethic and commitment are years spent honing his knowledge of the game and
the coaching and people skills that come with that.

Judging from the way he handled himself Monday you get the impression that he's a graduate of hockey college, a hockey man who has prepared himself well for the opportunity that's just been presented to him. He worked days, nights and weekends just to get to this point, but if he fails, it won't be because he isn't ready to try.

That's important because when you strip away the veneer of the "weeks of hard work" and the rigors of "searching for just the right men and the right chemistry" what you have is the heavy hand of an organization that allowed a rookie president to rid himself of the coach of the year and the executive of the year and replace them with a first-time general manager and a first-time coach and then try to pass it off as progress.

No one gets that opportunity twice in business, not even in the business of hockey. That means much will be expected of the two new hires and with little margin for error, especially if it all goes badly at the start.

Ruff knows that. And given that he is actually qualified to at least try to build on Nolan's success he allows himself at least a fighting chance.

In the Buffalo Sabres scheme of things these days, that's all anyone can ask.

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