The Toughest Parts
The reaction, as you might expect, has been a cautionary one. Within a half hour of the news, coaches from around the NHL — men who have been Lindy Ruff’s colleague for more than a decade in different capacities — shared with reporters their feelings about Ruff as a person and coach and that they are sure he’ll get another chance somewhere. To a man, “league sources” seem to indicate that the Sabres faults do not start and end with their head coach. Many of them — either through veiled explanations or directly — say the team has a fundamental deficit in talent.
What comes from the immediacy of today seems to be more questions than answers. Isn’t that always the rub?
For less than an hour, Darcy Regier fielded all the questions the Buffalo media threw his way.
Was last night’s lackluster effort a tipping point?
Did the practice go long today because this was being discussed?
Did Lindy have a chance to say good bye to the players?
Are you worried about your own job, Darcy?
Darcy Regier stood behind a podium in front of a handful of reporters and cameras and flash bulbs. He stood there, his face red, his answers brief and explained how he told Lindy Ruff that Lindy wasn’t going to get to be there, anymore. He stood there and, fighting back tears, explained the process that took place leading up to firing his best friend.
There is nobody in this world who hasn’t had to have a tough conversation with somebody, at some point. There is nobody in this world who hasn’t felt forced to do something that maybe they didn’t want to do. But so few of us, in the end, are then forced to go stand behind a podium and explain the mechanics of how it all happened. Fortunately, I haven’t had the displeasure of having to do that, and can only imagine the burden it must put on a person to try to explain or justify what could compel them to fire someone whom they previously said they would never fire, whom, according to various reports by Paul Hamilton over the years, would never let Lindy Ruff go, even if it cost Darcy his job, too.
Actually, I kind of liked the thought of that. I kind of liked the thought that whenever Lindy Ruff left, Darcy Regier would leave too….that he would fall on the sword and they’d both drift off into jobs with another team, but definitely together. At some point, they almost became the same person, and it never seemed quite right after that point to think of one being gone without the other. Beyond just that, there was something about the idea of loyalty between Regier and Ruff that — while frustrating at times — was also a very palatable thing about them. I think it became a badge of honor; not just for them, but for some Sabres fans as well. When no one else still believed in them, it felt like they still believed in each other. I can’t exactly pinpoint why, but that seemed to be important.
The Fan Owner
Terry Pegula is a fan owner. Did you know that before Terry Pegula owned the team he was a fan? Did you know he doesn’t care how much money he loses by owning the team, that he just wants to win a Stanley Cup and then another one and then another one? That’s how fans are, you know. That’s how they’d be, if they were owners. They wouldn’t care about revenue and expenses, about keeping a clean ledger sheet. They’d be in it to win it, and they’d do whatever it took to reach that.
Fans are impatient by nature. It should probably be in the description of the word ‘fanatic’, if it isn’t already. When Terry Pegula came around, there was a lot of excitement. Some of that, I think, exists because of the phrase “fan owner”. I think there is some implication in there that maybe because Terry Pegula is a fan owner, he was going to do everything you or I would do as fans. But there’s more to that than what is on the surface. I can’t even agree with friends over who should be traded from the Sabres, who is really to blame, or what great fantasy signings could actually make the team better. No one can. In their minds, (and everyone is the star in their own minds), everyone is the lead of their own movie. In their minds, everyone’s actions are ultimately justified. Everyone wishes to pull from people they look up to something good that they can also see in themselves. When Terry Pegula, fan owner, came around, everyone wanted Terry Pegula to do all sorts of things. But those things were all different, depending on who you asked. Few fans wanted things done the same way.
In the first few days of Pegula’s ownership, he said a few things which provided cannon fodder for columnists and bloggers. He referred to Gilbert Perreault as his hero. He said that Lindy wasn’t going anywhere. He criticized media members for being too hard on Tim Connolly. It was clear in those very first moments that whatever Terry Pegula was, he was now a bit out of his element. Championed as the vehicle behind a multi-billion dollar gas drilling business that gave him seemingly limitless resources, he was considered a stern but ultimately welcoming family man. It was boasted that in all the years he’d done business, he’d never lost an employee. But that was in a business where there may exist hundreds or thousands of people who can competently complete their job. The number of people in the world who may be able to competently coach an NHL hockey team to a championship, or to build a championship roster may be just a few dozen.
The margin of error became very small, and now, without the safety net of a coach who seemed to very much view the Sabres team as his children, that margin only gets smaller.
There is, now, no shortage of talk as to the future of Darcy Regier. The most widely circulated topic of conversation after it came to light that Ruff had been fired was the seemingly unanimous consensus among experts and novices alike that Darcy is operating on an incredibly short leash and his days are very numbered.
As someone trying to tell a story, I want to pause for a moment, and say this: I think Darcy Regier should be fired. I think Darcy Regier should have been fired first.
But now, I feel a little bit gross about the whole thing, and if/when Regier is ultimately fired in the coming days and months, it will take me a little longer than I wish it would to feel okay about that.
If you haven’t yet seen Netflix’s fantastically written series, House of Cards, you may wish to skip this anecdote for the sake of spoilers. But, in that show, there is a situation in which an Office Manager is asked to lay off 18 employees at a non-profit for budgetary reasons. After she lays off the 18, her boss then fires her. Essentially, she was used as a tool to do the dirty work and then thrown under the bus herself. The way this is portrayed in House of Cards is very emotional. It attempts to communicate something about loyalty and integrity and honor and all those other fun words that describe a person’s character. But the essence of it is that it attempts to describe what makes a person good, and that fundamentally, that is that we are — most of the time, anyway — our best selves toward other people. That we do that because not only do we expect it in return, but it is the right thing to do.
So now, yes, sue me: I want Darcy Regier fired. But I also hope that, because he had to stand in front of the media today and claim that Lindy Ruff’s firing was blood on his hands, that he is given a fair shot at turning the ship around. I don’t think he will, and I don’t think he deserves the chance based on the job he has done. But I do think that he earned something today by walking up to that podium and doing his best.
Sports teams have a unique way of making us forget that they’re not cartoon characters or TV stars, but real, live people. We forget sometimes that behind the quotes and cliches there exists actual human beings with real emotions.
After being fired, Lindy Ruff asked Darcy Regier if he could speak to the players on the team bus before it left for its Thursday game against Toronto. After getting over the initial awkwardness of hearing that Lindy Ruff had to ask permission for anything, it struck me that this is the kind of thing that a father does. A father of children, and a father of a team.
Fifteen seasons have passed since Lindy Ruff was first a TV character-but-not-really on my television for several months of the year. Fifteen years. I’ll be 26 in May and, the only things I’ve done for any fifteen year period so far in my life are be a virgin and tie my own shoes. I don’t even give most songs three minutes before I’ve decided whether or not I like them. Books get 40 pages. A TV show? Maybe two episodes. Three, if I’m feeling nice.
And yet, I can’t help but feel more bad than good about seeing Ruff go from an emotional stand point. It’s kind of like watching my crazy uncle be killed. I’m just not yet emotionally equipped to process it.
From a more practical, TV character sense, does making Lindy Ruff go away make the product better? Does it make the TV Show better? Well, time will tell. But for now, it is certainly very different, and that’s kind of exciting.
I don’t imagine it will take very long for Lindy Ruff to find another head coaching job if he wants one. He is that well regarded. And honestly, I don’t know if the Sabres roster — a roster that is something like the 10th youngest in the NHL and has so many problems right now that I can’t begin to list them — is really good enough that any human being on earth is equipped to work with it. In other words: there need to be more changes to personnel of some sort before this really starts looking like a changing of the guard. Be it Darcy or some players, something else — something even larger, if you can grasp it — needs to shift.
Thursday is going to be very interesting. Do the Sabres play harder? Are they looking to impress their new coach, to salvage something of the season? Does this become a tryout for anyone in Rochester who might have otherwise been overlooked? What really, now, are the possibilities?
That new coach, by the way, is (now) former Rochester Americans head coach Ron Rolston, on an interim basis. Rolston has been renowned for his work with young players in the past and so I imagine he’ll be given a fair shake to turn that interim tag into a permanent one. And Ron, on the off-chance that you’re reading this, I hope you know that a lot of the frustration and bickering and vitriol over the last several seasons has been as a result of not feeling like anything would ever lead up to this moment.
As this new relationship starts, be it just for a few months or for a long, long time, I hope you understand why there might have some baggage.
About a year ago, I wrote an article for Die By the Blade. It was about the history of Lindy Ruff’s tenure and posed a question about his legacy.
Would Lindy Ruff be remembered in the way that Marv Levy and, to a lesser extent, Ted Nolan are? Revered as heroes in the town despite ultimately failing?
What we know about both Levy and Nolan is this: They were never quite as good anywhere else as they were in their time with their respective Buffalo teams. In coaching years, Lindy Ruff still has quite a lot left to offer if he chooses to offer it. He could probably coach another fifteen seasons with other teams if he so chose. If he is successful elsewhere, will that somehow taint the way Sabres fans look back on his tenure there? Or will it only emphasize what was possible had other things been different?
At the time I wrote that Die by the Blade article, the question of Lindy Ruff’s legacy with Buffalo was kind of a hypothetical one. Now, we get to find out.
I know my answer.
Lindy Ruff is one of my favorite personalities in hockey. He seemed eminently likable. He seemed to be honest — or at least honest enough — most of the time. He seemed like his sense of fair and unfair, of justice on the ice and off, was close to mine. He seemed like a great coach far more often than he seemed like a bad one.
But despite all that, to me, it was time to go. Farewell, old friend. Thanks for the memories.