NEW YORK — In two seasons as coach of the Buffalo Sabres, Lindy Ruff has been a repairman, teacher, comedian and an authority figure. Not to mention a magician whose act requires him to keep the Sabres competitive despite being located in a small market and on a relatively small budget.
Somehow, Ruff wears each hat successfully. He inherited a team that had splintered into warring camps because of the battle between coach Ted Nolan and general manager John Muckler, who were both fired, and forged a truce that has turned into strong support.
Having taken the Sabres to the Eastern Conference finals a year ago and to the Stanley Cup finals this season, Ruff has proved he's among the NHL's best coaches, showing a knack for getting the best out of players without coddling overblown egos or trampling on fragile personalities.
"Even when things aren't going well, he seems not to get down on himself or on us," center Wayne Primeau said. "He doesn't do too much yelling and he's very constructive with his criticism, so you know if he says anything, he's trying to help you be a better player."
The Sabres, who split the first two games of the Cup finals at Dallas and will host Game 3 tonight at Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo, are a hard-hitting, tenacious team whose talents go beyond the world-class skills of goaltender Dominik Hasek. Their defensemen aren't as celebrated or experienced as the Stars' corps, but Ruff--who played 691 games on defense in the NHL and totaled 1,264 penalty minutes--recognized each player's strengths and adjusted his strategy to fit them, rather than trying to make them fit into his system.
Looking for offense, he gave Jason Woolley more offensive freedom than early in the season, and Woolley has responded by energizing the power play. The Sabres have converted five of 15 chances in the finals (33.3%) and 19 of 77 in the playoffs (24.5%). Alex Zhitnik has been an offensive catalyst but hasn't lost his aggressiveness. Ruff and assistant coach Mike Ramsey have also accelerated the development of Jay McKee and revived Rhett Warrener's game, which was going stale in Florida.
"He's a joker who makes it easy on guys to get through the season with the way he adds humor to everything," McKee said. "But if you make a mistake, he'll tell you about it, so you'll learn. . . . Guys are going to make mistakes over the course of a season. Guys go into slumps and teams go into slumps. You can't yell at a guy who's struggling. That only makes it worse."
Ruff, 39, said he developed his coaching philosophy by observing coaches he played for or worked with. He had a good assortment to choose from, as a player in Buffalo and with the New York Rangers, and as an assistant with the Florida Panthers under Doug MacLean when they went to the Cup finals in 1996 and were swept by Colorado.
"I think I've stolen a lot from a lot of coaches," said Ruff, who was a player-assistant coach with Rochester of the American Hockey League and San Diego of the International Hockey League late in his career. "The preparation and teaching, a lot of that comes from Roger Neilson. [His actions] behind the bench, that comes from Scotty Bowman. I loved playing for Scotty. He's the master of really keeping players on their toes.
"I could mention almost every coach. Doug MacLean, he was great from the emotional side and was a lot of fun to work with. He was great with the young guys. Rick Dudley, who I worked with in San Diego, he was a great coach who really understood the game."
John Van Boxmeer, a finalist for the Kings' coaching job and a teammate of Ruff's in Buffalo, suspected long ago Ruff might be a successful coach.
"He was very mature for his age when he came into the league and always had a good head on his shoulders," Van Boxmeer said. "He was always self-motivated and played hard, and that shows in the way his team plays."
Ruff, who acknowledged being nervous before the opener, appreciates where he is and has urged his players to savor the moment too. He knows how quickly life can change: His younger brother, Brent, was one of four players on the Swift Current Broncos junior team killed in a bus crash in December 1986, and Ruff has always kept hockey and life in perspective.
"The one thing you stress is family comes first in life, really, that the people around you are the most important people," he said. "The sport we participate in--this is a game. It's a high-stakes game, but it's still a game. We have to work extremely hard at it as coaches and the players have to work extremely hard at it as players, but second to that, you've got to have a lot of fun and you have got to enjoy it because there are a lot of situations where there are no guarantees.
"It's a game you play for today, and I have told the players to get to this point [the finals], for myself it has been twice in 20 years. For Don Lever, another [assistant] coach, it has been once in 25 years. So we're here to enjoy this next couple of weeks, have fun with it. We want to be the hardest-working team on the ice, in the same sense."