Ruff's new start stirs old memories
There's laughter at the other end of the phone line about three words into the question.
I wondered, after all, just how much thought Lindy Ruff had put into the Brett Hull skate in the crease goal from the 1999 Stanley Cup finals before being unveiled at his June news conference in Dallas as the new head coach of the Stars.
It was the first question he was asked at the press conference.
"I said to Jim [Nill] when I first agreed to meet with him, 'I'll meet with him, but we can't meet in the crease,'" Ruff said at his June 21 news conference, igniting laughter from the crowd.
Three months later, Ruff admits he worked on that line. He had to be ready for it, right?
"Yeah, I knew it was coming," Ruff told ESPN.com.
It's all laughs now but for years, Hull's controversial Cup-winning goal for the Stars in Buffalo cut deep in Western New York, particularly for a town that's never won a championship with either the Sabres or the NFL's Bills.
And Ruff certainly was hot under the collar at the time. Imagine if someone had told Ruff back in the summer of '99 that he'd coach Dallas one day?
But like anything, time passes, and in sports, that makes anything possible. Players, coaches and GMs change teams all the time.
"The thing that kind of struck me though as I was thinking about it, is that it was 14 years ago," Ruff said of the controversial ending to the '99 Cup finals. "It was basically at the start of my coaching career. It was an emotional time for sure. It was emotional for the Stars at the time, and emotional for the Sabres. But I really felt that answering the way I did ... it was time to move on."
Ruff was fired by the Sabres last season after spending the majority of his pro career both as a player and coach in Buffalo, his deep-rooted ties to the community well established.
For the first time in his career, he was unemployed. It was a strange feeling. Despite his impressive pedigree, he was anxious. He feared not being back behind an NHL bench. There are only 30 jobs after all.
The whole experience was new.
"It was definitely different," Ruff said. "You really don't know what to expect. You feel for what other coaches have gone through when you're going through it yourself, that's what I felt, having not gone through it before."
Ruff also interviewed with the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks but, ultimately, all signs always pointed to Dallas where after several meetings it was clear Ruff was finding chemistry with new Stars GM Nill early in the interview process.
For starters, both men were about stability: Ruff a long-time fixture in Buffalo and Nill forever in the Detroit Red Wings' front office.
"That was a big part of it," Nill told ESPN.com. "Lindy was actually my first interview, he was No. 1 on my list to start with. I came away from that first interview just very relaxed, knowing that if this guy was in charge of the team, he was really in charge of it. That was a real calming effect for me. You looked at this experience; he had been there and done it. He had been through everything. He'd been to a Stanley Cup finals; he'd been on a team that went through bankruptcy and had to manage that; he was on a team that fought to make the playoffs and got in; he was on a team that also didn't make the playoffs. He'd been through all the situations. I just know that when something happens, he's not going to panic."
Ruff felt that same chemistry with Nill.
"In meeting with Jim several times, there was something there," said Ruff. "It just seemed like in the conversations we had about the way we wanted the team to play, it seemed like a real good fit."
Under Nill, the Stars went through an offseason overhaul, bringing in several new players, including the blockbuster trade for Tyler Seguin. The biggest challenge, easily, will be to bring all those new faces together quickly.
"I think it is," agreed Ruff. "Putting your system in place, getting the players comfortable with that, getting the players comfortable with who they're going to play with, getting them comfortable with the style of play; that's all real important. I'm looking forward to putting this all together here during the preseason."
Where chemistry is most needed will be on the top line, where Seguin gets to finally play center in the NHL after three years on the wing in Boston; and Dallas star Jamie Benn goes back to wing.
That's the 1-2 punch that's really going to have the biggest bearing on Dallas' success this season.
It just so happens that Ruff and Bruins head coach Claude Julien are colleagues on the Team Canada coaching staff headed to Sochi. So you can bet Ruff picked Julien's brain this summer about Seguin.
"Yup, we spent a period of time talking about him," said Ruff. "And really, Claude had nothing but really good things to say. The fact that Claude's top two center men are [David] Krejci and [Patrice] Bergeron put Tyler in a role that shoved him over to the wing. They were deep at center ice. Here, we were pretty thin."
So Seguin gets his shot.
"I've talked to Tyler about moving in the middle and playing against the top lines. I don't think by any means it's going to be an easy process. But I think it's one he's really comfortable going after," said Ruff.
"He's played for a very good coach that's had a lot of success for that team in Boston. They play a real solid two-way game. That should do nothing but help me with this process with Tyler. The experience he's got even from last year's playoffs, that's something you should be able to build off of."
Seguin can't hide his elation at going back to center while also underlining that he learned a great deal playing wing in Boston. But it's indeed time, he feels.
"I get so much more speed when I can wind up then just staying on the wing, just going back and forth, I just get more involved in the play; that's why I enjoy the center position more," Seguin told ESPN.com earlier this month. "But there are things like draws and winning battles in my own corner that I am going to have to improve on a lot and I know that. I spend the summer focusing on that. I look forward to the opportunity."
As for Benn, while he's slated to be back on the wing where's he's a natural, Ruff told him to be ready for anything throughout the course of the season.
"I also told him there may be times `you slide over back to the middle,'" said Ruff. "I did say to him, 'The thing you'll notice is that you won't have the puck as much playing wing. You may have opportunities to shoot more, but as a center man coming out of your zone, you don't see the puck as much as a winger.' He's excited about being back on the wing but he's also game to slide back to center still if need be."
Ruff has his plate full with a re-tooling Dallas' team, but he wouldn't want it any other way.
The move after all these years in Dallas was made easier with the fact all four of his kids are gone from home, three are in college now -- one at Boston University, one at Miami of Ohio and the other at the University of Pittsburgh -- and one is a hockey operations assistant for the Buffalo Sabres.
With all those tuition costs, good thing Ruff got a job, I said in jest.
"No s---," laughed Ruff.
Lindy's back, and the game is better for it.