Lindy Ruff looked relieved.
He walked into the room and took his place behind the podium as reporters walked up and set their recorders in front of him. The television camera lights flicked on and there was a pregnant pause. Then, for the first time in nine months, a reporter asked him a question about the hockey game he just coached.
The rollercoaster that is the 2012-13 season had made its long climb up the hill and was starting to gain momentum. Months of waiting crawled by but all at once a week-long training camp–“minicamp,” Ruff had called it–had come and gone. So, too, had the first game of 48. Gravity was taking hold. It was going to be a sprint. Everyone knew it, and the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres looked relieved to be off and running with a win.
“I think Thomas was excellent,” Ruff said, and he was right. Thomas Vanek had a hand in every goal in Buffalo’s 5-2 win over Philadelphia. He set up power play goals, scored on a remarkable deke to tie the game at two and later ushered the puck into an empty net to seal the win. He looked comfortable with Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville, the line racing around the ice at First Niagara Center with a purpose.
It was a bold statement made by a team brimming with potential. Even before the game, the mission statement for the Sabres was clear. The video presentation showed only classic playoff highlights despite Buffalo missing the postseason last year. The opponent on Sunday had eliminated the Sabres the last time they reached the Stanley Cup playoffs. Beating the Flyers in January was a good start to fixing all that.
“I’ll be honest,” Ruff said, “it’s one team I really like to beat and it’s one team I really hate to lose to, so I feel pretty good right now.”
On Sunday there was a shade of toughness in the Sabres that has been missing in the past. Ruff called Drew Stafford’s fight with Scott Hartnell “awesome” and he was happy with the 15 minutes he got from Steve Ott. The new No. 9 got the sellout crowd buzzing with a goal on his first shot, but also for his determined effort. Ott dug into corners and blocked shots without a stick. He delivered hits instead of avoiding them.
Ott’s effort was an early-season statement of practical toughness rarely seen in Buffalo. Ruff told reporters he wants his squad to “raise the level of intensity and be a tougher team to play against.”
“Everyone’s determined to be that team,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in one game. It was great to see tonight, but it’s something you’ve got to earn after 5 or 10 games.”
Watching him answer questions I wondered where he was on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks earlier. Was he watching football like the rest of us, or maybe pouring over game tape and agonizing about some third period last season where the lead slipped away? Was he on vacation in Montana thinking about the abysmal January his team slogged through? There was so much time to wait for this season to happen. Now that it was finally here, how easy is it to go back to playing hockey?
In the end, Ruff answered three questions too many. None of them were mine. The one that got Ruff to break character was about an embellishment called on Steve Ott late in the second period. A reporter asked if the call was an “officiating habit” after watching Derek Roy wear No. 9 in Buffalo for so many years. The reporting corps exchanged looks and smiled as Ruff weighed an answer.
He looked down, laughed quickly and said, “I don’t even know, I haven’t even looked at it.”
It was good to be back.