I have been a Buffalo Sabres fan since the day I was born, literally. The Sabres first season was 1970-71. I have always loved my Sabres. Buffalo is a beleaguered city as part of the "rust belt" that has failed to regain some of it's bygone luster like Cleveland and Pittsburgh have. Countless companies have vacated Western New York over the years, but the greater Buffalo area remains proud and religiously supportive of their two professional teams- the Bills (NFL) and the Sabres (NHL). Many cities are zealously supportive of their teams, for Buffalonians there's almost an "Avatar" (movie reference) like connection between the fans and the teams. The teams are a way to rise above the economic difficulties of life in Buffalo.
Buffalo is near Canada and thus a hockey town with a whole bunch of hockey players. Just like every kid in Mexico plays soccer, at least in their neighborhood, so also does every kid in Western New York play hockey. Hockey is played in driveways, city streets, gyms, church basements, frozen ponds, and state of the art rinks. Every kid plays hockey in some way when they grow up in Western New York. Buffalo is a hockey town in love with it's team.
The National Hockey League has a salary cap which makes for reasonable parity in the league, effectively allowing for small market clubs like the Sabres to have a shot at winning the most storied trophy in sports- the Stanley Cup. At the same time, Buffalo has never had an owner willing to go right to the cap limit and pay what it takes to put a yearly contender on the ice. The Sabres have been to the Cup finals twice in their 40 years (1975 & 1999), with both series ending as terrible disappointments (NO GOAL!). Close calls are all Sabres' fans have for Cup memories. When the NHL had a major labor dispute and lockout in 2004, the Sabres actually emerged quite well with their GM, Darcy Regier, and coach, Lindy Ruff, doing a great job building a team that could compete with the new league structure and dynamics. Through and beyond the lockout, Regier and Ruff weathered ownership changes, financial scandals, horrible jerseys and a steady loss of players for several years. Since 2004, the Sabres have put some excellent teams on the ice while staying well under the salary cap. They became the league model for winning (regular season games) on the cheap. Despite consistently sporting a competitive team, they were known for cheapness and fan frustration reached a fevered pitch after a truly special and stellar 2006-07 campaign ended in the Eastern Conference finals followed immediately by the painful loss of their two best players (Chris Drury and Danny Briere) because ownership wouldn't pay them. After 2007 a feeling of futility started to sink in to the Sabres fan base. Owner Tom Golisano was just not going to pay for the team the city of Buffalo so desperately wanted...probably even needed.
Then, last year, like something from a fairy tale, a former Buffalo native who bled blue and gold, and also happened to be worth a few billion bucks, showed up on the radar. It was like Gandalf coming with an army of horsemen to rescue battle-worn Rohan from the Orcs at Helm's Deep (another movie reference). Terry Pegula seemed to come from no where to save the franchise. He swooped down and bought the team promising to bring a Stanley Cup in three seasons! Now, such a promise is impossible to fulfill, but Buffalo must be allowed to dream. Terry Pegula, for a few months starting last Spring, re-ignited a flame that had all but burned out. Sabres pride was reborn with a new vengeance and hope. The team finished the season strong and Pegula went after just about every high level free agent he could get in the off season. They were unable to sign the free agent off season prize (Richards), but landed several of the best available players. In a totally un-Sabre like move, he also signed several young, promising Sabres to long term, expensive contracts. Pegula clearly demonstrated that money would be no object. Going forward, Buffalo would be on par with any other big spending club in the league. Such a philosophy is utterly and completely foreign to Buffalo fans. The city was absolutely lit up with excitement about the future, including me.
The new season started with a bang as the re-tooled Sabres looked pretty solid out of the gate in a tour of Germany. Then, the wheels started to wobble, injuries occurred, inconsistent goal tending, and a punchless offense revealed a team no where near the right trajectory to win a Stanley Cup in ten years, let alone three. As I write, the Sabres have lost 11 straight road games and sit four games under .500. They are three spots out of the playoffs in a league where most teams make it. The wheels are off. The team is just plain bad right now.
What's the problem? Well, that's the subject being discussed in Buffalo 24/7. The Sabres faithful are distraught and a dark cloud hangs over the city (of course, the Bills don't help).
I am afraid to suggest what I must say. It feels almost sacrilegious.
I fully realize that Lindy Ruff is an institution in Buffalo, and rightfully so. He played many seasons with the Sabres and typified the kind of heart Buffalo folk love. He was not a very talented hockey player, but hustled his butt off, played whatever position he was asked, and stood up to the biggest bullies in the league during the 80's. I grew up watching him. No Sabres fan will forget Billy Smith spearing him in the eye and his return to the ice with a big old bandage on his peeper. It's no wonder he became an excellent coach. He knew how to motivate his teammates, and he proved he could do the same with players as a coach. He is the longest tenured coach in the NHL. Winning 300 games in the NHL is an incredible achievement, especially with one team. Working closely with GM Darcy Regier, Ruff crafted some darn good teams, especially the 2006-07 Eastern Conference final squad. Poor Lindy, like that year, had to watch player after player-that he developed- sign for more money with other clubs.
You would think Pegula's arrival with fists full of money and a somewhat surprising stamp of approval on Darcy Regier could push the team over the top. Sure, no one expected huge things already this year, but improvement on last year's finish was a given in most people's minds. Instead the team looks listless, passionless, and heartless-words that could never be used to describe Lindy Ruff- yet fit the team perfectly right now. This is Lindy Ruff's team, there is no escaping that fact.
It appears that Ruff has lost this team. The team simply doesn't respect him enough to play with the passion that is necessary to win games in the NHL. Shame on the players for sure. They are supposed to be professionals, but have quit, at least on a subconscious level. Their lethargic efforts come from a lack of motivation. It is the coach's job to motivate. It doesn't seem Lindy Ruff can motivate this team any longer.
Why is this so? It is rare for a coach in the professional ranks of any sport to have a long tenure. In high school, college, and the minors coaches can use the same techniques over and over because of rapid player turn over. In the pro ranks, unchanging techniques eventually grow stale. There are only a few exceptions to this coaching longevity "rule" which seems to have caught up to Lindy Ruff. Ruff's approach isn't working with this team and he most likely won't be able to adapt. It's very probable he can go to another team and have good success, good coaches do so regularly. But as for his time with the Sabres, it seems to be over and we all know it. This isn't an indictment on Lindy Ruff and his coaching ability, it's simply the way of all professional coaches eventually.
Western New York sports talk radio, which I listen to somewhat regularly via the Web, is ablaze with speculation about Ruff's future. The airwaves are thick with the reality of what must soon happen. I am reminded of the scene from The Godfather (still another movie reference) when Tessio is revealed to be the traitor and therefore must be eliminated. He enters the Corleone compound and is immediately seized to be taken to his fate. Everyone liked Tessio and he liked them, yet mob rules dictated the way it had to be. It was a sad event, but everyone knew it had to be that way.
Lindy Ruff is no traitor, he has earned his spot in the Sabres pantheon, but the reality of the immediate situation feels the same as the certainty of what had to happen to Tessio.