The NHL’s longest serving coach was given his walking papers by the Buffalo Sabres last Wednesday after 16 seasons behind the bench, proving yet again that all coaches are hired to be fired. It just happens that Ruff’s shelf life was incredibly long. His strong relationship with GM Darcy Regier help him survive a series of peaks and valleys in Buffalo, which included a Stanley Cup Final appearance, a bankruptcy, an owner going to prison, and a recent spending spree by ownership that dramatically raised expectations. In the end, the expectations were too much for Lindy Ruff. In the end, he was a mere mortal.
Roger Neilson, who coached the Sabres during 1980-81 season, lived a nomadic hockey life, one that was in stark contrast to Ruff’s reign in Buffalo. Neilson died 10 years ago this June, but his legacy as an innovator and hockey ambassador lives on. Also, he’ll always be remembered for the bizarre ways in which he was fired.
Neilson was coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1979-80 season when he was abruptly fired by owner Harold Ballard. The outrage among the players, fans and media was so great that Ballard relented and re-hired Neilson only days later. Ballard wanted Neilson to wear a paper bag over his head as he walked onto the bench in his first game back, and then remove the bag to reveal the new coach of the Maple Leafs was actually the old coach. Neilson refused to go along with the publicity stunt and was fired for good at the end of the season.
In the ensuing 20 years, Neilson coached several teams to varying degrees of success. The two full seasons he spent in Philadelphia were among the most successful of his career, yet he was still fired. Neilson was diagnosed with cancer during the 1999-2000 season. When he was ready to return during the playoffs, he was told by GM Bob Clarke that his services were no longer required. Clarke famously said that they didn’t tell Neilson to go and get cancer, and that he went loopy on them. Once again, fans rallied around Neilson. But it was to no avail. He was officially fired after the playoffs and never had another head coaching job.
At least Neilson never suffered the indignity of being fired and replaced by his brother. Current Ottawa GM Bryan Murray was fired by the Washington Capitals during the 1989-90 season and his successor happened to share the same DNA. His brother Terry took over for him.
Some of the strangest, most bizarrely-timed firings were carried out by New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello, coach firing into an art form. Lamoriello fired coach Robbie Ftorek late in the 1999-2000 season with the Devils in first place. His replacement, Larry Robinson, led the Devils to their second of three Stanley Cups.
In 2007, Lamoriello canned Claude Julien with three games remaining in the regular season and the Devils once again leading their division. His replacement? Lou Lamoriello. Well, the stunt did work as well a second time. The Devils were bounced in the second round of the playoffs by the Ottawa Senators.
In comparison to the bizarre Roger Neilson firing stories, and the strange way the Devils dismiss coaches, the Ruff dismissal was downright humane. Ruff was able to address the team after being fired and say his proper goodbyes.
That’s the kind of respect you earn when you do the same job for 16 years.