BUFFALO — James Patrick’s been close friends with Sabres coach Lindy Ruff since they played together more than 20 years ago. The assistant coach appreciates Ruff’s quick wit and ability to elicit laughter. He also admires the toughness Ruff showcased on the ice.
So when defenseman Jordan Leopold plowed into Ruff during practice Monday, knocking him down in a bizarre and scary collision in which the coach broke three ribs, Patrick wasn’t sure what had happened.
“He’s as tough as any player I’ve played with,” said Patrick, who will coach the Sabres tonight at the First Niagara Center if Ruff doesn’t feel well enough. “To see him on the ice, I thought he was kidding for the first five, seven seconds.
“And then when he wasn’t getting up, I was like, ‘Holy smokes, that’s got to be painful’ because he’s as tough as there is.”
As he was crumbled on the ice in pain, Ruff joked he wanted his players shown a clip of him “to lighten the mood,” Patrick said.
Ruff only slept four hours and was still hurting Tuesday morning, so he stayed home and let Patrick and the other assistants run practice inside the FNC.
Sabres general manager Darcy Regier joked Ruff’s “listed as day-to-day.” If Patrick temporarily takes over, Teppo Numminen will come down from the press box and coach from the bench.
The coaches planned to visit Ruff later in the afternoon and prepare for the Boston Bruins. Ruff also held a conference call with his staff in the morning.
“It’s killing him (being away) because he’s the pulse and the heartbeat of the team,” Patrick said. “He’s our leader. I mean, he’s in a lot of pain. But he feels sick that he can’t be here.”
With limited mobility, it seems unlikely Ruff would coach from the bench. He could work from somewhere else in house, possibly upstairs, Regier said.
“There’s a concern that he wouldn’t be able to get out of the way quite honestly,” Regier said. “And the pucks do make their way onto the bench.”
In a press release Monday afternoon, the Sabres said they expected Ruff back Tuesday to “resume his normal coaching responsibilities.” But Ruff was still at the hospital then. Patrick said Ruff told the nurse “he had to cancel his dance lesson at 5 o’clock.”
Patrick sounded more optimistic than Regier that Ruff would coach.
“My concern is he won’t be able to yell at the guys,” Regier said with a grin.
Sabres captain Jason Pominville added: “We need that voice. We need him to be vocal back there to get us going. He’s a great leader.”
Patrick, an assistant since 2006, is more soft-spoken and mild-mannered than Ruff. Patrick often runs optional practices. Regier’s “very confident” in him.
“I asked him … how he felt about (coaching),” Regier said. “He said he’s ready. I said, ‘You got lots of support, lots of help.’ I think he’ll focus on a few things. He’ll talk to Lindy. But he’ll be ready to go.”
Patrick added: “We’re going to prepare the team like normal.”
The Sabres’ 2011-12 campaign has been anything but normal. A chic Stanley Cup pick, they’ve fallen near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The team’s endured a shocking number of injuries, sometimes playing without seven or eight regulars.
Now the coach is hurt.
Regier, who entered professional hockey in 1976, has never experienced a season like this one.
“I have a fairly lengthy history in the game, and you take a certain comfort that this is a very unusual year and they don’t come along very often, not unlike the (mild) winter in Buffalo this year,” he said. “So I think that awareness kind of allows you to keep your head down.
“You keep moving. You have confidence in the staff and the players. You recognize that if you stay with it, things will turn.”
The Sabres, with 50 points, could be entering a make-or-break stretch. Tonight kicks off a run of four straight and eight of nine at home. They’ll likely need about 95 points to secure the final playoff spot.
Regier hopes the Sabres use Ruff’s injury as a rallying point.
“You have to use it as an opportunity for good things and the belief that you can make good things happen,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any other way to look at it.”
Regier insists he still believes in his team.
“Nobody wanted to be here where we are,” he said. “It is where we are and it provides an opportunity. You have to play to that opportunity. You have to go for it.”