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THE SMART MONEY IS RIDING ON RUFF TO GET THE JOB DONE

The scene was the Crag Burn Golf Club in East Aurora. The Sabres had just concluded what used to be their annual golf outing at the posh private club, and some of the players were engaged in a little extracurricular activity.

They were blasting 9-iron shots toward a raft floating in a small lake off the 18th green. Lindy Ruff, using another player's clubs, was doing it better than most, and someone suggested that he couldn't do it left-handed.

Ruff worked the challenge into a small wager, built the odds to his liking and took the bet. He then walked over to his bag, selected the 9-iron from his left-handed set of clubs and proceeded to smack the ball out to the target.

The smile on his face was positively beatific.

"That's Lindy," said former teammate Mike Ramsey. "He was always good at sizing up a situation and then looking for the advantage. He knew exactly what he was doing."

One might question that opinion this time around. Ruff is leaving a no-pressure and well-paid position with an up-and-coming Florida Panthers team for the head coaching job with the Buffalo Sabres. In recent years, the shelf life of a Sabres coach has been lower than a doughnut in the clearance bin at Woolworth's, but Ruff not only accepts that, he has prepared himself for it.

"It's not just any job," he says. "It's Buffalo. I consider this my home town and I think that's important. I know what the people here want and what they think. I know how they feel about hockey and what they want from their team. I think that counts for something."

That's more of an edge than Ted Nolan had when he arrived here two seasons ago. In coming to the Sabres from the Panthers, where he studied under Roger Neilson and Craig Ramsay, and later Bill Torrey, Bob Clarke and Doug MacLean, Ruff is infinitely more prepared than other ex-Sabre heroes like Jim Schoenfeld, when he jumped almost directly from the playing ranks, or even Rick Dudley, who was learning his craft in the minors. Ruff thinks the edge comes from being prepared and knowing what the people want.

"I told them (Sabres front office interviewers) that the people here think of the team as their team," Ruff said. "The owners here might think it's theirs, but the people don't. It's their team and if you don't handle it right, they let you know it.

"That was one of the great things about playing here. The people here knew you and you knew them and they told you exactly what they thought. I know what to expect."

Impact was immediate

It wasn't always that way for Ruff. A second-round pick in the talent-rich 1979 entry draft, he was a raw-boned kid out of the Canadian West. The Sabres projected him as a rugged forward (who would later switch to defense), but back then, he was just one face in a crowd with a bag full of tattered equipment and an ages-old pair of skates.

On the first day of practice, he took the opportunity to throw his weight around, hitting some of the bigger players on the team and even instigating a scuffle. By the end of the day, coach Scott Bowman told the training staff to look after the kid and "make sure he gets some good equipment."

He was on his way.

Ruff evolved into a quality NHL defenseman, playing 10 seasons with the Sabres and 12 in the NHL. The last two, with the Rangers and Neilson in New York, changed his life.

"His time was coming to an end," Neilson said via telephone from a hockey school he is running in Ontario. "He was always keen on studying the game when he was there and he showed an interest in what we were trying to do. When I got the job in Florida, I knew the two guys I wanted: Craig Ramsay and Lindy Ruff."

Neilson admired Ruff from his time in New York and had kept track of his career.

"Lindy did the kinds of things that showed me he was willing to pay the price to learn," Neilson said. "He played that way and he went down to the minors at the end of his career -- something a lot of players would never do -- in an attempt to learn the game at a different level."

At this point, good timing played a role. Florida was admitted as an expansion team in 1993-94, creating a new set of jobs in the NHL. Ruff got one, and no sooner did Neilson, Ramsay and Ruff step on the ice than Ramsay got sick. He spent nearly all of his first season with the Panthers in the hospital and then recovering from stomach surgery. Ruff took on a much larger role than anyone expected.

"He was great with individual players and one-on-one drills," Neilson said. "He knows the game very well and he has a great sense of humor. That keeps the players loose, and he's a team guy.

"With Craig out, he picked up a lot of the load and he developed himself in both ends of the ice. Lindy knows both ends well and even though he was a defensive defenseman, he had his ideas on the offensive side of the game and the power play."

Ruff's expanded role would pay off handsomely. Neilson and Ramsay were relieved of their duties after a season in which the second-year team missed the playoffs by just one point. Bryan Murray had been named the new general manager (replacing Clarke, who had gone back to Philadelphia) and he was going to name his own coach. Ruff had a year remaining on his contract, but even if he didn't, the Panthers were interested in having him stay on.

"We changed, but we wanted Lindy to stay," said team president Bill Torrey, the former New York Islanders general manager. "We felt he would fit and in meeting and talking with Doug MacLean (who was coming down from Detroit with Murray and was to be named coach), they got comfortable very quickly. He was our recommendation to Doug and we felt it was a good one.

"Lindy was very close to Roger (Neilson), but Bryan felt not only would Lindy adapt, but that he would benefit from the change of direction we were going in. We explained the younger players were stifled and that we had to open it up and that we could only be an expansion team for so long.

"As we went through that, he understood, agreed and adapted."

Still, the decision to keep Ruff would be MacLean's. MacLean said the two hit it off quickly.

"I went to the draft that year and I knew I was a candidate for the job," MacLean said. "I met with Bill (Torrey) and then I spent four days at the draft. I wanted to watch and get to know Lindy. First, I just watched him in the meetings and then I spent a fair amount of time with him and when I left there, I knew that if I did get the job, he was definitely staying."

MacLean liked the way he related to the players, particularly the many young ones who were working their way into the Panthers' lineup.

While he did his job, he also learned. From Neilson and MacLean on the ice, and from strategy sessions with Torrey, Clarke and Murray.

"He wasn't afraid to speak his mind, but he was also respectful of other opinions, and if the decision went the other way, he still supported it," MacLean said. "A lot of guys say they can do that, but it's not always the case.

"Lindy had his ideas, but if they were overruled, he accepted that and worked for what we were trying to accomplish. I think he respected and learned from those guys. There was a lot of hockey knowledge in that room.

"The No. 1 thing overlooked in this game is if you don't love the game, you don't have a chance to survive as a coach. He appreciated every day what he was doing. That's a critical thing. I tell people don't chase money, chase championships and the money will follow. Lindy is like that. He just loved doing the job."

Coach must adapt

Does that translate into making it as the No. 1 man? No one is offering guarantees, but they're not betting against him either.

"You never know," Torrey said. "There's no guarantee when you give a guy his first chance. Will he get it done? I don't know, but then I didn't know about Al Arbour when we were out on the Island. People said he had no experience and that we were taking a chance, but we thought it was a good one. A good coach has to be able to do certain things. He has to have the knowledge, but he also has to be able to adapt.

"Nowadays, no coach gets a full deck, but how do you cover that and max what you have? You're constantly adapting. The thing I like about Lindy is he is adaptable.

"He has definite ideas on how to proceed, but how you go forward isn't in a book. There's a feel and intuitiveness and the great coaches have that. Al had it and Doug has it and Lindy has been around it.

"My hunch is that he has it."

Ramsey sees it too.

"It was his character, the way he approaches the game," the former Sabres defenseman said. "You see a player and how he plays and you say, 'Boy, that's what you want all your players to be like.' That will rub off on his players."

Ramsey said he kept in touch with his friend after Ruff was traded to the Rangers and after he took up coaching. He says Ruff has never stopped evolving.

"All during Florida's run to the finals, we would talk and I'd say, 'Wow, I'm impressed.' I'd get off the phone and think how impressed I was with his knowledge of the game and what he knows and learned, and what he did in Florida. I was very impressed with his outlook of the game and his philosophy of it.

"He did what it took as a player and a coach. He was always that way."

Ramsey, perhaps Ruff's best friend in hockey, is now one of his assistant coaches, bringing both men full circle.

"I used to say he could play on my team any time," Ramsey said. "Now he's got one of his own."

How will he handle it? That remains to be seen, but the smart money wouldn't bet against him.