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Thursday, April 26, 2007
Updated: April 27, 5:28 PM ET
Ruff, Renney: Different paths, similar end results

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

BUFFALO -- Trace the lifeline on the palm of most NHL coaches and you'll find similarity -- the abrupt shortness of the line.

Find the lifeline of a coach who does not embrace change even when things are going smoothly and, well, it can't be found.

Buffalo GM Darcy Regier once gave a young Lindy Ruff a ride from White Fish, Mont., to their junior hockey home in Lethbridge, Alberta, along with a carload of others, but he really didn't get to know Ruff until Regier went looking for a coach for the Buffalo Sabres, his first coaching hire as an NHL GM.

Lindy Ruff
Lindy Ruff has been behind the Sabres' bench for the past 10 seasons.

Regier asked mentor and Islanders coaching great Al Arbour what he should look for in a coach. Arbour suggested a number of attributes, but one stuck out for Regier.

"He said you need to find someone you can grow with. I really didn't understand what he meant," Regier said Thursday.

If he didn't then, he certainly does now.

Regier and Ruff have combined to become the longest-serving coach/GM tandem in the NHL and are the most successful management/coaching duo in franchise history. Regier was still uncertain if Ruff had the right qualities, so Arbour suggested he talk to former Sabres coach, GM and general all-around legend Scotty Bowman, for whom Ruff had played. Regier asked what Ruff was like, and Bowman chuckled.

"He's like Al Arbour with a better sense of humor," Bowman told Regier.

Years after the two began working together, Regier was visiting Ruff and saw a framed picture of a Lethbridge Broncos jersey on his wall. As it turns out, both had worn the same number, Ruff taking it on after Regier left to start his minor pro career in the Central Hockey League.

"That's my sweater," Regier said.

"No, that's your number, but your jersey didn't have any black marks on it," Ruff quipped.

It appears Bowman was right on.

After a decade of fighting the NHL wars shoulder to shoulder, the two have an easy, straightforward approach that isn't unlike a marriage or any other long-term relationship.

"I think it's just a real true understanding. We both believe in the same thing. We both understand what we want from players. I understand his role and his responsibility, and I know there's no hidden agenda with him," Ruff said Thursday as the Sabres prepared for Game 2 in their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the New York Rangers on Friday night.

"I don't coach and he doesn't manage. The fence between us is, 'Don't do my job,'" Regier added.

Were there times they were annoyed with each other?

"Yeah, sure. But probably not a lot of them and they were probably early on," said Regier, a native of Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

Tom Renney
The New York Rangers hired Tom Renney during the 2003-04 season.

Coaching and managing in the NHL is not a secure business. That is a given. But in spite of the uncertainty that is part of the job, the two have weathered storms on and off the ice. There were the economic constraints of being a small-market team that couldn't spend like much of the competition. There was the bankruptcy and ownership upheaval. Now, in the wake of the lockout, the Sabres have emerged as an elite franchise and the envy of other NHL clubs.

There is some irony, then, as the Sabres have gotten better, the margin for error for both Regier and Ruff has diminished. Look at the coaching/managing relationships that tend to last the longest and they are found on developing teams where growing pains are expected.

A season after going to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals, the Sabres won a Presidents' Trophy as the top regular-season team. There are no excuses now for the Sabres, which means there are no excuses now for Regier and Ruff.

"If you want to continue the relationship, it's incumbent on you to get better," Regier said. "That has to be one of the conditions of staying together."

The undercurrent of that condition is it gets harder to do that when you've become as good as the Sabres are. Ruff's take on the dynamic was less subtle.

"The only way that relationship works is if the president doesn't fire you," he said.

Does he feel more pressure as time ticks away on his tenure in Buffalo?

"There's pressure everywhere. I don't feel anymore pressure," Ruff said. "You get a team to where we're at … you want to stay there. You want to try and find ways just to be a consistent team in this league, knowing that when you get outside the playoffs, sometimes it's tough to get back inside them. We want players to come here. We want players to like playing here. We want this to be a great place to play and I think that's part of it, too."

A former teammate and player under Ruff, Rob Ray, said he thinks Ruff's become much more adept at listening to players than when he first became a coach.

"He's changed a lot," said Ray, who played 900 NHL games, accumulating 3,207 penalty minutes along the way. "I think the biggest thing that's helped him along the way is his lines of communication with his players are more open. For a long time, he wanted to call the shots. Now I think he sees the benefit of communicating with the guys more."

If Ruff is the coach who, in many ways, never left the Sabres, his counterpart in this series, Tom Renney, is a coach who has enjoyed a coaching renaissance after his first gig expired in a flash.

Rangers assistant GM Don Maloney recalls Renney was "the" name being discussed in the hockey world as the next up-and-coming coach through his junior coaching days in Kamloops and then with the Canadian national team. "It's kind of like how Brent Sutter is considered today," Maloney said.

But when Renney landed behind the Vancouver Canucks' bench in 1996, he was unable to adjust from the highly structured, rigid style that had served him well in the past and found himself at odds with a veteran team that included strong personalities like Alexander Mogilny, Mark Messier and Pavel Bure.

Just 19 games into his second season with Vancouver, he was gone.

Renney, who won a silver medal as coach of Canada's Olympic team in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway, returned to Hockey Canada, where he served as vice president of hockey operations. His duties included overseeing all of the Canadian coaching and refereeing programs, as well as programs dealing with parents and other issues.

Notes
• One of the Sabres' strengths lies is in their terrific offensive depth and it is the nature of the sport to label teams' lines, which means Ales Kotalik, Tim Connolly and Adam Mair have the distinction of being known as the team's "fourth" line.

Not that they care much for that distinction.

"When you look at our lineup, you can't consider anybody a fourth line. We definitely don't feel like a fourth line," Kotalik said Thursday. "Look at the guys on this line, Tim Connolly, when healthy, is one of the best players in the league. He's one of the best skilled centerman; he's just unbelievable when you watch him.

"Adam Mair, if he got a regular chance to play big minutes, he would be a 15-20 goal scorer. He has some great energy and playmaking abilities. I just can't say enough of these guys. I'm pretty happy I've been put with them. Even if our time is a bit limited on the ice."

For his part, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff agreed with a notion first raised in the playoffs a season ago that the team doesn't have a one-through-four lineup, but rather four No. 2 lines.

"I pretty well look at it that way. We have lines that can compete in both ends. We have lines that are all very good at scoring," Ruff said.

• Rangers coach Tom Renney acknowledged that it's possible his team might have been subconsciously guilty of reading their own press clippings coming into this series after sweeping Atlanta in the first round and advancing in the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

"You know what, you can't help but maybe get a little bit full of yourself, especially when you haven't been acquainted with this kind of hockey for a long time," Renney said.

-- Scott Burnside

In July 2000, Renney made his way back to the NHL as the director of player personnel for the Rangers and eventually took over as interim coach from GM Glen Sather in late February 2004. Working closely with the Rangers' prospects and scouts was invaluable in preparing him for the head coaching role.

"He's very intelligent. He's very diligent and his attention to detail is exceptional," Maloney said. "He has a way of relating to the players and pushing them without being too in their face."

Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said Renney "cares about the game in a very unique way. He wants the game to get better. I think he's a terrific coach."

While Ruff and Renney have followed divergent paths to this point in their careers, they share a commitment to evolving that is crucial to their continued employment.

"I think I just learned the value of an 82-game schedule. I learned the value of the people in your room being terrific resources," Renney said of his brief, tumultuous tenure in Vancouver, which included a much-publicized banning of beer on team flights. "I understood that it's not a sprint, it's a marathon, and you've got to be sort of calculated in terms of the rest-to-work ratio and understand that these guys want to win.

"So just being in tune with that was probably the biggest thing that I learned in Vancouver. With my previous experience, it was full throttle with the national team. You had a captive audience there, players that were trying to get somewhere. And all you were doing was helping them, so they were buying what you were selling.

"Not that these guys don't, but you've got to be a little bit more aware of the dynamic of the NHL season and I learned a lot from that for sure," Renney added. "But I don't think my personality's changed at all to be honest with you. I think I'm the same guy I've always been. But what I've learned to do is coach the NHL player better."

Veteran Brendan Shanahan arrived in New York during the offseason as a free agent, having won three Stanley Cups in Detroit. He could have stayed in Detroit or gone to Montreal, but chose the Rangers. Shanahan said he's been impressed by Renney's preparation and handling of players.

"I've been really impressed with how he took our team in that stretch drive there," said Shanahan, whose only previous exposure to Renney was on the Canadian entry in the 1994 World Championships in Italy where Renney was an assistant coach. "The upbeat attitude, but at the same time, the coaching and the teaching was there. The high demand for us to play our best was there, so it wasn't all hugs and cuddles.

"He's certainly a gentleman and he has respect for people, he shows respect for players. But what's really impressed me was his attention to detail in coaching us."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.