It’s been eight months since Lindy Ruff coached the Buffalo Sabres. A considerable stretch of time, but to say that I’m completely over his firing would simply not be true. A lot has happened since he’s been fired; the Sabres, again, missed the playoffs, the NHL carried on, with trades and transactions, and new rules were implemented. Fans went about their lives, watching hockey, watching the playoffs, and enjoying the summer offseason.
To say I’m an avid Sabres fan would be an understatement. I was the type of fan who would plan my social life around hockey season. I’d always be down for hanging with my friends, as long as it meant after a game. Of course there would be times when I’d miss a game to go out and do something else, but checking my phone for score updates was a must. I even made sure to book my trip to Europe this past summer until July, making sure that I wouldn’t miss the playoffs. Going to games were special events, included with my ritual of arriving at least an hour early so I could watch the pre-game warmups and snap pictures of my favorite team.
But now, for the first time I can remember, I don’t plan my social life around the games. Hell, there have been a few times where I’ve completely forgotten the Sabres were even on. I’ve never been so blasé about the Sabres. My younger brother and I have regularly attended Sabres games for the past several years, and a few days ago, he mentioned he got tickets to Monday’s game against the Dallas Stars. And for the first time since, oh I don’t know, forever, I am very hesitant in attending. And it has nothing to do with the fact that the Sabres are playing absolutely dismal hockey, and are completely unenjoyable to watch. It’s because I really don’t know if I can handle seeing Lindy Ruff coaching behind the opposing team’s bench.
No matter how ridiculous it sounds in the world of sports, deep down I always wanted to believe that Lindy would stay with the Sabres until he retired. Even when the logic no longer made sense, and there were no more arguments to be made as to why we should retain the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, I still couldn’t get behind firing Lindy.
At 23 years old, Lindy is the only coach I can really remember coaching the Sabres. I was seven when he was hired, and that’s around the age when I really started becoming a Sabres fan. As a child, I remember going to the games with my family, playing roller hockey in the streets with my brothers, going to Sabres carnivals at the arena and getting the players’ autographs, and staying up really, really late one night in June to watch Brett Hull cheat his way to a Stanley Cup and breaking thousands of Buffalonians’ hearts in the process. And Lindy was there for all of it. He was there to roll up his sleeves and go toe-to-toe to the then-coach of the Ottawa Senators, telling him “don’t go after our fucking captain.”
As the head coach, Lindy is the leader of the pack. The guy that everyone looks to. And as a fan, I felt the same. I’ve had my fair share of favorite players, and I’ve watched them come and go, but Lindy was always there. Always there standing behind the bench, arms crossed with a stern face.
Like an embodiment of the city of Buffalo, Lindy was a hardworking, tough hockey player. He’s a man who can be terrifying, yet also incredibly charming. Lindy’s a guy who can seamlessly crack a joke with a twinkle in his eye, or make a sarcastic remark, just before turning on a reporter who crossed the line with a question and becoming ornery, revealing the short-tempered side to him. And I loved him for it.
Change is constant in the world of professional sports. The shelf life of a player’s career is not incredibly long, and with millions and millions of dollars on the line, the shuffling of a roster and the replacement of the coaching staff is natural. Call me a sucker, but I truly loved how the Sabres seemed to be incredibly loyal to their guys. The philosophy of growing from within and sticking with your players was something special to me. Lindy being the second-longest tenured coach in all of professional sports in North America was something I was so proud of. Rick Jeanneret, the legendary sports broadcaster, has been with the team since its inception in 1970. My spirits soared when Ryan Miller announced his contract extension in 2008, stating that he wanted to remain with an organization that drafted him and he wanted to win a championship with a group of guys he came up the ranks with. These were all things that made me feel proud to be a Sabres fan.
To me, Lindy’s firing back in February signaled the beginning of the end to a lot of things that I hold special when it comes to the Sabres. Rick Jeanneret has announced his retirement for 2016. Ryan Miller is 33-years-old, and on the last year of his contract with the Sabres. The odds of him wanting to wait another several years as the team rebuilds itself into Stanley Cup contenders again are pretty slim to none.
Replace “Azkaban” with “Buffalo”, and this basically sums up Ryan Miller’s career so far.
For the past several years, I found myself desiring the Sabres would win a Cup based around all these guys. I wanted Lindy to have the glory of coaching a Buffalo-based team to a championship. I wanted to hear Rick Jeanneret go berserk as the seconds dwindled down while the Sabres were preemptively ripping off their equipment on the ice to celebrate a Cup victory. I wanted to see a straggly-bearded Ryan Miller skate around the ice while triumphantly lifting the Cup over his head.
While it was not surprising, Lindy’s firing devastated me because it meant it was time to come to terms with the fact that everything I romanticized and fantasized about the Sabres might not come to be. Things will always change…new players, new coaches, new management. These are all things that any sports franchise has seen and will continue to see. This isn’t news to the many Sabres fans who have watched the team since the 70s. But to this 23-year-old fan, Lindy was the only constant to my beloved team, and it’s only now that I realize how my love for Lindy and my love for the franchise itself had been so intertwined.
So as I file into the arena (an arena whose name has changed three times since 1996) on Monday, adhering to all my little pre-game rituals I set in place years prior, I’ll be mentally preparing myself not for Lindy’s homecoming back to Buffalo, but for officially saying goodbye to Lindy and letting go of something that first ignited my passion and love for the game of hockey.
(Photo by Karl B DeBlaker via AP)