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Returning Ruff: Time to turn Sabres around

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Back for a second stint as Sabres coach, Lindy Ruff appeared a little grayer, said he’s a bit wiser and sounded more motivated than ever to restore success to a franchise that has known mostly losing during an NHL-record 13-season playoff drought.

This time, it’s personal, Ruff said during an introductory news conference Tuesday, a day after being hired. It’s a homecoming for the 64-year-old Ruff, who spent his first 10-plus NHL seasons playing for the Sabres and 14-plus more coaching them before being fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2013 season.

“I’m humbled by the opportunity that I’m getting,” Ruff said. “I get a chance to do something that I wasn’t able to do as a player. Then I became the coach of the team and didn’t succeed with what I set out to do. And now, I’m getting one more opportunity, in which I really feel I’m blessed to have.”

He then reiterated the message general manager Kevyn Adams voiced a week earlier when he launched the coaching search after firing Don Granato.

“The time is now,” Ruff said. “It’s now.”

Flanked by Adams and team owner Terry Pegula, making a rare public appearance, inside the pavilion of the Sabres’ arena, Ruff fondly reflected on how the building rocked during Buffalo’s various playoff runs.

“I can still remember the 8-0 Philadelphia win and sitting in the office and thinking of the building shaking,” he said, referring to the Sabres’ first-round series-clinching win in the 2001 playoffs. “It was incredible. So my goal is to have these guys experience what I was able to experience.”

The building has heard far more booing and seen plenty more empty seats during the 13-year playoff drought, which is tied with the NFL’s New York Jets for the longest active streak in North America’s four major men’s pro sports. Ruff is the last coach to guide the Sabres to the playoffs — a seven-game first-round series loss to Philadelphia in 2011.

Since then, Buffalo is on its eighth head coach and fourth GM and finished last in the overall NHL standings four times.

Granato was credited for helping spur the team’s development but failed to meet the growing expectations the Sabres established a year ago, when they missed the playoffs by two points. This season, Buffalo (39-37-6) won three straight games only twice and finished seven points out of contention.

Ruff, who was fired by the Devils in March following three-plus seasons coaching New Jersey, fulfills Adams’ vision of hiring someone with NHL experience. He also spent four seasons coaching the Dallas Stars and in between served a three-year stint as an assistant coach with the New York Rangers.

Overall, the NHL’s 2006 coach of the year ranks fifth on the career list with 1,774 games coached and 864 victories, a franchise-record 571 of them coming in Buffalo. Under Ruff, the Sabres made eight playoff appearances, including a 1999 run to the Stanley Cup Final, which they lost in six games to Dallas, and consecutive losses in the Eastern Conference final to Carolina in 2006 and Ottawa in ’07.

“Lindy knows how to win and he knows how to take a team to another level,” said Pegula, who fired Ruff two years after purchasing the franchise. “He may be the most competitive person I’ve ever met in my life. Just go fishing with him and you may never go fishing with him again.”

Without revealing names, Adams said he interviewed at least 10 candidates over the past week before choosing Ruff.

“He’s the right person for this job and I truly believe that he is the person that’s going to take us to the next level,” Adams said. “Our players are craving it.”

Ruff acknowledged he has matured as a person and a coach, adapting how to relate to today’s players since leaving Buffalo. He said he is more open to communicate with players by text and no longer feels the urge to enter the locker room after every game to provide his critique.

“I actually laugh at some of my coaching style because a lot of things have changed. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but I’m a lot better coach now than I was when I left,” Ruff said.

What has not changed is Ruff’s relatable style and ability to elicit a laugh. In New Jersey, he once asked reporters to limit their questions because he wanted to watch the Bills play on TV.

On Tuesday, he got a big laugh after being informed how forward Alex Tuch, a Sabres fan growing up, hoped Ruff might land the job.

“He might say after the first week, ‘Oof, I was wrong about that,'” Ruff said with a smile — and with Tuch sitting directly in front of him. “Nah, it’s great. I mean, obviously, we all want to win. And this is a we thing.”

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