BUFFALO, N.Y. — After 16 years behind the Sabres’ bench, Lindy Ruff will be back in Buffalo but coaching against them for the first time.
Ruff has more immediate concerns with his new team, the Dallas Stars, but he has allowed himself to think about returning to a city that enshrined him in its Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.
The Stars face the Sabres in Buffalo on Monday night.
"I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it," Ruff said Saturday after a shootout loss to Winnipeg that dropped Dallas to 4-5-1 and into last place in the Central Division.
"It’s going to be great walking in the building, say hello to old faces," Ruff said. "I’ve got a lot of good friends there, good memories. We had a lot of great hockey in there. It’ll be a good day. I want to see our team play really well."
Ruff’s ties to Buffalo go back to his days as a player. Selected in the second round of the 1979 draft by the Sabres, Ruff made the team later that year. In November 1986, he replaced star Gilbert Perreault as Sabres captain.
With a 571-432-162 record, Ruff is the Sabres’ winningest coach. He is second on the NHL list for wins with one team, behind only the New York Islanders’ Al Arbour (740).
Ruff has kept his home in suburban Buffalo, where his wife and kids are living. He will embrace the visitor role on Monday when the Stars start a stretch in which they will play five of six on the road.
"The No. 1 thing on my mind is our (1-4) road record," Ruff said. "Really focusing in on that on this road trip. It’s not like I’ve been gone a long time, so it’s not like I’m walking up and I’ve been missing for two or three years."
Ruff may be off to a slow start with his new team, but it’s even worse in Buffalo, where the former coach is more popular than the current coach and general manager.
The Sabres have been a team in transition since firing Ruff in February. Under Ron Rolston, Buffalo has started this season with the NHL’s worst record (2-10-1), and has been barely competitive in amassing an 0-6-1 home record.
Before the Sabres’ recent road trip, Rolston said he had no thoughts about Ruff’s return.
"It’s part of the business," said Rolston, who was hired as Sabres interim coach after Ruff was fired and then received a contract extension over the summer. "Coaches change jobs. It’s part of the business. He did great things for the organization, and I’m sure they’ll have something for that. But we’ve got bigger things to focus on ourselves. Worry about things that we can have control over."
Chants of "Fire Darcy!" directed at general manager Darcy Regier, have become familiar during home games.
"I think the general population thinks that the wrong person was kicked out," Sabres fan Michael Bowen said. "And I think (Monday), if we could have him back, I think a lot of people would want him back. I think the place is going to go wild."
Bowen is the owner and designer of Pastuerized Tees, which used to sell a shirt in Buffalo that read, "I like it Ruff."
A redesigned shirt was recently released that reads, "I like’d it Ruff."
"I think people still have a love for the guy," Bowen said. "I don’t know if people think that he got a raw end of the deal. I think they still want to hold on to him as part of Buffalo."
Rip Simonick, the Sabres’ longtime equipment manager, formed a close relationship with Ruff over the years.
"I’ve had numerous coaches go and come back and coach with different teams — average coaches, good coaches, great coaches," said Simonick, who has been an employee of the Sabres since shortly after the club’s 1969 inception.
"Lindy, he was a combination of everything. He’s funny. He’s witty. He’s had some rough times and he’s had some great times," he said. "I had Lindy when he was 18 years old when he came from Western Canada. He never once came to work and didn’t enjoy what he was doing."
Rob Ray, a former Sabres’ forward now working as a team broadcaster, said Buffalo fans could relate to Ruff.
"He brought that hard-working, kind of in-your-face, yell, scream kind of guy intensity that people here like," Ray said. "It was easy for people to relate to him that way, and that’s why they accepted him as a player and as a coach."
Simonick acknowledged it will be strange to see Ruff coaching the visiting team.
"The only time I think I ever saw him on the other bench was during training camp when I was on one bench and he was on the other," Simonick said. "It’s going to be different."
It might also sting Sabres fans to see Ruff representing a Stars franchise that has been vilified in Buffalo since the Stars defeated the Ruff-coached Sabres in the 1999 Stanley Cup finals.
"That’s the worst place he could’ve went because of the history," Ray said. "All of a sudden, we’ve hated them for so long, not because of what they did, but because of other things, and then him ending up going there and coaching there.
"And now he’s going to have to end up to say, ‘Hey, this is such a great place, and it’s this and that,’ where it gave you probably the worst experience of your NHL life."