- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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Lindy Ruff took a deep breath after being asked how he envisioned it would be to walk over to the visitors’ bench at First Niagara Center on Monday night.
"It’s going to be strange, that would be the easiest word," Ruff told ESPN.com over the weekend. "It’s going to be a real strange feeling."
Buffalo was his town for as long as he can remember. From the decade (1979-89) he spent as a Sabres player to his long tenure as head coach from July 1997 to February 2013, the Sabres were his team and Western New York was his home, his life.
Monday night’s game between his Dallas Stars and his former team is about more than just hockey.
"There’s not many coaches that got to bring their kids up all in one city, and I did," said Ruff, whose four kids are all grown up now. "It’s about your friends, your kids’ friends, it’s knowing the security guys as good as you know your own trainers, local restaurants, people around downtown, you just know a lot of people. I spent most of my life there, really almost all of my hockey life. That’s 30-plus years."
Ruff and his wife Gaye still have a home in the Buffalo area and plan to return there for some time in the summer.
Another deep breath from Ruff when asked how he feels Sabres fans will react Monday night.
"I think it’ll be good. I’ve always had a good relationship with the fans and the people of Buffalo. I think that part will be good," Ruff said. "We had a lot of great times, we had tough times, I had a couple of family issues that people of Western New York were awesome with. Those will always be in my heart."
Ruff’s daughter Madeleine had brain surgery to remove a tumor in March 2006 when she was 11 years old. Ruff was forever thankful for the community’s support.
He’d be absolutely lying if he said he wasn’t keeping an eye on how the Sabres were doing since he left, as a season from hell plays out in Buffalo right now.
"I feel that pain," Ruff said. "It is a tremendous sports city, and it’s tough right now. But I understand what’s going on. It’s not easy. I’m not going to say I’m not checking, I’ve watched games, I’ve watched players I’ve coached -- some of the younger ones -- and there’s times when I wonder if I could have done more or done things differently so that those players would be ahead of where they are right now."
So much to digest ahead of Monday night’s game. But Ruff wants to keep things focused on his usual routine.
"That’s exactly what I got planned," he said. "I really want to keep it a normal game day. I want to keep it as normal as possible knowing there will be a few exceptions."
The custom for players returning to play a former team is to put money on the board before the game, buying your teammates a big steak dinner if the team comes through with a "W."
What about coaches?
"I don’t think you’re allowed to put money on the board anymore, are you?" Ruff laughed. "Maybe I’ll offer the players an extra day off. I can’t offer them enough money to make them happy."
More laughter when asked if he’d kept in touch with any of his former players.
"During preseason I reached out to Ryan (Miller) after the preseason incident in Toronto and I said, 'If I was you, I'd tie up the right a little bit better if you’re going to become that type of goalie,'" Ruff chuckled, recalling Miller’s fight with Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier.
"I'm obviously not that type of goalie, but I know he likes to see that kind of thing, where if you are called, you answer, and no matter the result you went hard for the boys," Miller told ESPN.com via email. "And as a coach, I think that's all he wants out of his players, to go hard and do it for the right reasons: team, city, self respect and of course to win.
"I always liked Lindy as a person and a coach," Miller added. "I thought he cared and that made it easy to play for him."
Ruff still has ties within the Sabres organization, regardless of his firing last February.
"I've talked to (Sabres general manager) Darcy (Regier) on several occasions as well, we’re good friends, we've shared some early season stories here as well," Ruff said.
"I think your friends are always your friends."
And your town is always your town.
13dScott Burnside and Craig Custance