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A work in progress: Rolston does it his way

It was part compassion, complete fortune-telling when Jeff Jackson put an arm around his captain, Ron Rolston. Their junior team had just lost the national championship in double overtime, failing in its bid for a third straight title, and the coach wanted to provide solace for the heartbroken Rolston. “Someday,” Jackson told the 19-year-old, “I’m going to coach a college program. When that happens, I want you to be my assistant.” ¶ Jackson wasn’t sure if his words helped. Rolston was set to embark on a college hockey career and had NHL aspirations, so a far-off coaching job probably didn’t quell the pain of losing. ¶ The words stuck in Rolston’s head, though. Four years later, as Rolston was wrapping up a short-lived professional career, Lake Superior State University hired Jackson as its head coach. His phone soon rang.

“He called me a few days after I got that coaching job,” Jackson said this month. “I’m sure it was to remind me of what I told him.”

Indeed. Rolston knew his playing days were over, but he wanted to stay in the sport. He’d loved it since he was a kid, when his mother would drive the family from their home in Flint, Mich., to the rinks of Detroit. Hockey was his passion, and he wanted it to be his life’s work.

Now, 24 years later, Rolston has reached the pinnacle. He’s set to begin his first full season with the Buffalo Sabres, one of only 30 men lucky enough to be called an NHL head coach.

“Getting this opportunity to coach here has been a dream,” Rolston said in First Niagara Center. “Most people try to aspire to get to the very top of the profession, and this is the best in the world.”

Rolston is the 16th bench boss in Buffalo’s 44-year history. He’s the first new coach since 1997, when Lindy Ruff began his record-setting tenure.

After learning from top college coaches and becoming his own man with USA Hockey, the 46-year-old Rolston is ready.

“I don’t think anybody will work harder at it,” said Jackson, who is entering his ninth season as coach of Notre Dame. “He’s a bright guy. He’s passionate about what he does, and he works extremely hard at evaluating the game. He’s got good communication skills, and I think that’s why he’ll be able to take that step to the National Hockey League without any problems.”

Rolston survived a trial run to earn his first NHL job. He replaced Ruff on an interim basis for the final 31 games last season, going 15-11-5 with little practice time. Though the results were respectable, the spontaneous situation was a challenge for the meticulous man dubbed “The Professor” by his friends.

“He proved last year that he can step in and coach at this level, but if you know Ron at all, you know his strengths are his teaching and his preparation,” said Chadd Cassidy, Rolston’s longtime assistant who replaced him as coach of the Rochester Americans. “He’s phenomenal at putting in the groundwork, building the foundation and constant growth. That’s what you’re going to see is constant growth with the team.

“I know for him, having a full season puts him at ease because he’s not thrown into a situation and just go, because that’s not his personality.”

A serious demeanor

Sabres fans who’ve watched Rolston may be surprised to hear he has a personality. The coach is stone-faced whether the team wins or loses. His public comments lack passion and comedic effect, especially when compared to the demonstrative and witty Ruff.

Rolston is always on guard, careful not to let folks get a good glimpse at his inner workings.

“Here, you always have to be on, you know what I mean?” he said. “Everything’s a situation where you have to be at the top of your game all the time. When you leave here, it’s family time and you can let your guard down a little bit, and you’re able to just kind of take some breaths that way.”

“Ronnie is a completely different person behind closed doors when he is in his comfort zone,” Cassidy said. “When it’s hockey, it’s 100 percent serious, and it’s work, and this is how you do it.

“Behind closed doors with his friends, he appreciates a practical joke, and he’s not afraid to do one as well. He comes across as so serious, and I think when he does deliver something funny it makes it even funnier.”

Rolston hasn’t had much time to joke around lately. Getting ready for his debut season has essentially been a 24/7 job. He leaves home before his two kids wake up, and 5-year-old Maeve and 3-year-old Ronan are back in bed by the time he returns.

Some of the limited family downtime with wife Shannon has revolved around getting Ronan on the ice for the first time. The boy is focused on Bills football at the moment – the son of a Detroit Lions fan wears a C.J. Spiller jersey to bed – but Ronan will try on skates sometime this year. When he does, he’ll join the family tradition.

Hockey runs in family

Rolston comes from a family of six. His father, Ron, never played hockey, but he purchased skates and lessons for his three sons: Greg, who’s two years older than Ron, and Brian, who is six years younger. Their mother, Joyce, would pack the boys and their sister, Dayna, into the car for the hour long drive to Detroit.

“When we were younger, she’d be driving every single night,” Ron said.

The boys all had talent. Toronto selected Greg in the 10th round of the 1983 draft. Brian was a first-round pick in 1991 and spent 17 seasons in the NHL, recording 342 goals and 761 points in 1,256 games with New Jersey, Colorado, Boston, Minnesota and the New York Islanders.

Ron scored 40 goals in 42 games during his final season with Jackson’s junior team, St. Clair Shores, and spent three years at Michigan Tech. He was co-recipient of the Most Outstanding Freshman award, then totaled 28 goals and 56 points during his final two seasons.

“Ron was a good, solid, two-way hockey player,” said Herb Boxer, his Michigan Tech coach. “He was the guy you’d put out in the last two minutes of the game, and you know he’d get the job done.”

Rolston developed that work ethic early. The family owned a furniture store, and Ron helped deliver or sell the goods as soon as he left grade school.

“I was in a good environment there with my parents,” he said. “You just learn the value of working hard and putting in the time and doing things right when you do it.”

Hard work isn’t enough to get to the big leagues. Rolston’s professional career amounted to seven games in the East Coast Hockey League and a short stay in Sweden. Then he and Jackson reconnected.

“It was an easy fit for me,” Jackson said. “I felt that as long as I had another assistant that had some experience, which I did, that Ron would be a guy that we could groom into becoming a really good coach, and that happened.

“He felt his way through it early the first year, but after that I think he took off. He became passionate about it. He learned any way he could from anybody in the business.”

During Rolston’s five seasons at Lake Superior State, the team won two NCAA championships and reached the tournament every year. The success brought attention and gave Rolston an ideal start to his coaching career.

“It’s like getting a doctorate, basically, working under Jeff and learning about the game,” Rolston said. “I was very fortunate because a lot of people don’t get that kind of mentorship right away. I was able to right off the bat learn from the best and then have a good foundation moving forward.”

Rolston discovered the importance of being detail-oriented under Jackson, who would spend hours planning practices.

“When the players see that, they understand that you’re working for them,” Rolston said. “You’re working hard for them and not just demanding something and not giving anything back. I think that’s important.”

Success accompanied Rolston to three more collegiate assistant jobs during the next nine years. He left Lake Superior State in 1996 for Clarkson, which advanced to the NCAAs in all three of his seasons. Harvard hired him to help turn around the program in 1999. Legendary Boston College coach Jerry York lured Rolston across town in 2002.

“Ron is not only the best coach I know, he is the best person,” said Providence College coach Nate Leaman, Rolston’s fellow assistant at Harvard and his roommate during their time there. “He lives and leads by example.

“He’s an extremely detailed, extremely prepared person. There’s not going to be a video clip he doesn’t watch. He’ll never be underprepared, and his players will never be underprepared.”

Ascent into coaching

Rolston’s biggest move came in 2004. USA Hockey hired the career assistant to be a head coach in its national development program.

“He was the guy making the decisions, and he was the guy who constantly pushes himself to get better,” said Cassidy, who worked alongside Rolston throughout the seven-year stay with USA Hockey. “I saw him really kind of grasp that whole development of young players and the right way to teach things. He is just so consistent and so calculated in the way that he teaches, so precise.”

It didn’t take long for Rolston to make his mark. He coached the United States to the gold medal at the under-18 world championships in 2005. It was merely the start.

Rolston is the most decorated coach in U.S. history with five medals: three golds, one silver and a bronze. He is 30-8 in International Ice Hockey Federation world championships, including 22-3 in under-18 competitions.

“It’s fun to see him rise to where he has, and I’m not surprised at all,” said Dave Fischer, the senior communications director at USA Hockey who also was the sports information director at Michigan Tech when Rolston played there. “He was driven, determined and a real student of the game. It’s not by accident he’s now a head coach in the National Hockey League.”

In addition to learning how to be a boss with Team USA, Rolston learned to control his emotions. It’s hard to believe now, but he used to be a slave to the highs and lows of winning and losing.

“I was quite a bit different,” Rolston said. “I just think I matured over time. I’m more levelheaded now than I was early on. You understand everyone wants to win, but you just learn the value of going through the process of helping other teams and other players that you’ve worked with get better.

“There’s still at this level times that it’s devastating, just the ups and downs of wins and losses, but I think I have a better understanding of that now, more experience and maturity in that area.”

Keeping an even keel

The Sabres welcomed Rolston to the organization in 2011, hiring him to coach the minor-league team in Rochester. The Amerks went 36-26-14 and lost in the first round of the playoffs during his only full season.

Halfway through the second, the Sabres fired Ruff and promoted Rolston. Though he relished the opportunity, it was far from ideal.

“I was talking to him quite a bit last year,” said Leaman, the former roommate, “and the one thing he would tell me was it’s really tough to improve the team because there’s essentially no practice time with the shortened schedule.

“He’s got high standards. He expects to win. He’s frustrated when he doesn’t win. Even when he took Buffalo over right from the start, he expected to win every game.”

Rolston will have more control over wins and losses now. He’s had a full offseason and training camp to create his game plan and establish ideals. He’ll have time to teach and practice. Though the Sabres are short on talent, Rolston was a top college recruiter who should be able to find some. Thanks to his role with USA Hockey, he should be able to develop it, too.

“Our younger guys seem to be getting better every game that goes by,” said Sabres second-year forward Brian Flynn.

The coach wants to keep improving, too.

“There isn’t a part of his coaching that he doesn’t put under a microscope every day,” Cassidy said. “He’s always trying to get better, always trying to get better. That’s probably the thing I admire about him the most is how focused he is and how he’s always trying to improve himself as a coach and person.”

One of Rolston’s main objectives during training camp was to establish good relationships with veterans such as Steve Ott and Thomas Vanek. Rolston spent two decades working with kids and college students. He wants to show he can connect with men, too.

“He’s going to find a way to motivate those guys to be the best they’re capable of being,” Jackson said. “He’s probably a great fit for a young team in trying to build that organization back up. I’m sure that they couldn’t have found a better guy to do that.”

The Professor has the course outline in place for the Sabres. He wants Buffalo back in Stanley Cup conversations. He’s ready to teach, and he’s eager to win.

“It goes back to the work and preparation and just the environment that you try and create,” Rolston said. “The most important thing for me wherever I’ve been, my goal has just been to make the organization better than it was before I got there. It’s just do the best you can, and the rest takes care of itself.”