TORONTO – It’s a good thing Ron Rolston was sitting down.
There was no one more surprised to hear of Lindy Ruff’s firing by the Buffalo Sabres than the man tapped to replace him.
Rolston was in Rochester preparing for an American Hockey League game when Sabres GM Darcy Regier phoned him with the news on Wednesday afternoon. Roughly 20 hours later he was on the ice at Air Canada Centre leading the Buffalo players through a morning skate before facing the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"I wasn’t expecting it," Rolston said Thursday morning. "It was surprising for me. I think you work your whole career to get an opportunity like this."
The 46-year-old travelled a unique road to get here. He was an assistant with a number of NCAA teams before spending seven years with the U.S. national development program, where he crossed paths with current Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, among many others.
A year ago, Rolston took over Buffalo’s AHL affiliate in Rochester, which opened the door for him to take the next step when Ruff was shown the door.
The Sabres have only bestowed the tag of "interim coach" on Rolston for now – a sign he’ll have to get some results from the 6-10-1 squad to remain in the position past the end of this season.
"My job is to jumpstart this team and to do it in any way we can," said Rolston. "I’ll probably be considered a little more analytical in approach (than Ruff) and will make sure that the communication that needs to be going on right now in the organization with the players (is happening)."
Buffalo has been in a tailspin with losses in four of its last five games, a stretch that included a tantrum from veteran goalie Ryan Miller after the team blew a third-period lead to Pittsburgh over the weekend.
The Sabres are languishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference and have already fallen seven points back of the division-rival Leafs. Rolston didn’t have a lot to tell his new players when he addressed them for the first time in Toronto on Wednesday night.
"We understand at this point that the talking part of things is over," he said. "As Michael Jordan says, `I want to see it done and I want to hear it done.’
"We were pretty brief."
The new coach was pretty honest in his assessment of what has ailed the team. He has first-hand experience with a number of the players from Rochester – Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno, T.J. Brennan and Kevin Porter in particular – and has watched video from some of the Sabres games this season.
"From what I saw it was just a lot of shortcuts, a lot of rest in shifts," said Rolston. "Those are things you just have to eliminate if you’re going to be a good hockey team. Most importantly, it’s just getting back to that – it’s getting back to work and getting back to eliminating shortcuts from your game because there’s not a whole lot of time."
The Leafs were anticipating an opponent with extra motivation.
Randy Carlyle said that a coaching change puts players under the microscope and recalled how nervous he was after taking his first NHL job with the Anaheim Ducks in 2005. Fighting a flu during the opener in Chicago, the coach only had four players out on the ice when the Blackhawks opened the scoring.
"I wasn’t too sharp," said Carlyle with a laugh.
He believes a number of things will be running through Rolston’s mind when he steps behind the bench on Thursday night.
"I’m sure it’ll be exciting for him," said Carlyle. "There’s this nervous energy and for people that get the opportunity you’ve got to feel fortunate. There’s only 30 of these jobs in the league and he’s got one of them now.
"There’s a big responsibility that comes with that."
That didn’t seem to be lost on Rolston, who plans to approach the game the exact same way he has for the last 20 years. He believes that the experience he’s gathered will serve as good preparation for the challenge ahead.
As for being thrown directly into a shortened season for a big game against a division rival, he could only smile when asked about the opportunity.
"Where would you want to start other than Toronto?" he said.