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In discussing the NHL lockout with Lindy Ruff, there's really no such thing as a fair question.

The Buffalo Sabres coach is caught in the middle.

Ruff technically is a member of management, although he probably never would have gotten behind an NHL bench had he not played for several years, including a few as a captain.

He's rarely bashful about sharing his opinions, but this delicate situation forces him to measure his words. He can't say anything that could alienate his players once the NHL resumes operations.

On Day 49 of the lockout, a day marked by the All-Star Game's cancellation, Ruff was on the HSBC Arena ice to mingle with about 200 tiny skaters from the Tim Hortons Timbits instructional program, not to work with his players.

"Sometimes maybe my answers are guarded, but some of that is from being a player and going into coaching," Ruff said. "I don't forget the 14-plus years I played and what we went through."

Ruff hasn't been highly accessible to the media during the lockout. Wednesday was one of the few times he has publicly spoken about the salary-cap stalemate between the league and NHL Players Association.

While he called himself "an outsider looking in," he certainly possesses more perspective than most.

As a player he attended meetings with union boss Bob Goodenow. As a coach he not only has familiarized himself with the usual front office dealings, but he also has experienced a bankruptcy (when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was his boss) and an ownership change.

"I'd be foolish to say I don't know where they're coming from because players battle in and out," said Ruff, the Sabres' captain from 1986 to '89. "You ask them to go to battle every night. They're used to being confronted with tough situations, and they usually respond to it.

"Being a former player and knowing where the union came from and where it's at now, you can understand that. Through all that and being on the management side now, I think there has to be give and take."

There's one issue upon which Ruff doesn't have to ride the fence: the fans. There haven't been any negotiations between labor and management since Sept. 9, and none have been scheduled.

"Fans are frustrated, and they have every right to be frustrated," Ruff said. "They're like anybody else, like myself. They want to see a resolution. I think they'd like to see dialogue and communication. That's the gist of it from friends, from fans, from anybody I bump into. They would like to see two parties working toward a resolution."

The league has been canceling games 45 days out to give clubs a better opportunity to schedule other events in their arenas. Through Dec. 19, 454 games have been axed. The Sabres have lost 21 games, or 25.6 percent of their regular-season schedule.

Ruff optimistically quoted Yogi Berra when asked if there would be any NHL games in 2004-05.

"Nobody has said it's over yet," Ruff said. "You would hope some type of resolution would come about and the season could be salvaged.

"I also think both sides paint the picture there will be no resolution. That's all part of bargaining. I don't think we can fool ourselves into thinking that both sides are still posturing."

Ruff, 44, has been going a little stir crazy without NHL hockey. He would have been entering his eighth season as Buffalo's coach.

Instead, he spends a few days here and there in Rochester, working with some of the organization's young prospects in the American Hockey League. He also does his best to follow those Sabres skating in Europe. Goalie Mika Noronen on Wednesday became the 10th Sabre to sign overseas, joining HPK Hameenlinna in his native Finland.

"You become accustomed this time of year to be doing something," Ruff said. "It's like that (internal) clock goes off, and you miss the teaching, you miss the on-ice, you miss the travel, you miss everything.

"There's days when I'm not doing anything in Rochester that you can say I wander around aimlessly."

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