Lindy Ruff was fired Wednesday after almost 16 years behind the Buffalo Sabres' bench, but he likely had a clue this was coming.
At least that’s how fellow coach Ken Hitchcock felt when it happened to him. The St. Louis Blues coach calls it the pit-in-your-stomach instinct as a coach when you know you’re losing your team.
"As a head coach, you know ahead of time," Hitchcock told ESPN.com on Wednesday in the wake of Ruff’s firing.
"Everybody thinks it’s about winning hockey games. It’s the energy your team plays with. As a coach, it’s an uncomfortable feeling when the energy in your group is not there and that’s your responsibility. When your team walks around in a fog, that’s your responsibility. You know well in advance before it happens. When you’re a good coach, and Lindy is a hell of a coach, it just doesn’t feel right. You know it. It’s really an uncomfortable feeling."
Fired in Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus and yet one of the game’s most respected coaches, not to mention last season’s Jack Adams Award winner as NHL coach of the year, Hitchcock knows full well it’s part of the business.
He also worked alongside Ruff as part of Team Canada’s Olympic staff in Vancouver, capturing gold in 2010, so Hitchcock knows the coaching talent that’s now on the open market.
"Lindy is going to have lots of choices," Hitchcock said. "He’s a great coach. For me, he’s a really creative guy. I really saw that at the Olympics."
Team Canada 2010 head coach Mike Babcock also enjoyed getting to know Ruff as part of the Olympic process and, like Hitchcock, felt for his colleague on Wednesday.
"The big thing for Lindy, as a player and then as a coach, he’s had an unbelievable run in Buffalo," the Detroit Red Wings coach told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "His family has grown up there. He’s always going to be part of Buffalo. In saying that, Lindy Ruff is a very, very, very good coach. They had a hell of a team there at one time. Their team is not as good as it used to be. He still found a way to be competitive. You know it’s going to be a tough time for his family, but he’s going to move on and be excellent somewhere else. Someone is going to get themselves one hell of a person and a great, great coach."
Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman hasn’t yet announced his coaching staff for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, but my guess is that Babcock will return as head coach and Hitchcock and Ruff will return as assistants. Just a hunch on my part, but I don’t see Team Canada wanting to mess with success.
And if Ruff does indeed get an invite back on the Olympic staff, it will tell you -- as if anyone needed to say it -- what high regard people in the game still have for him despite Wednesday’s firing.
I’m not saying the Sabres were wrong to fire Ruff. The message can indeed get stale after more than 15 years, and this Sabres squad looked listless.
But let’s not pretend this is a cure-all answer to Buffalo’s woes. Some of this has to fall on GM Darcy Regier, as well. His blue-line corps, for my money, is overrated, I might even say soft. The Sabres aren’t good enough down the middle, although Cody Hodgson is showing signs he’ll be a good one. And overall, there’s not enough character and leadership on that team.
If the Sabres miss the playoffs, I’m guessing owner Terry Pegula will also make a change at GM as well despite handing Regier an extension before the season.
Regier and Ruff have always talked about being a package deal. They’ve done some great work together in Buffalo. I’m not quite sure why they didn’t leave together.