BUFFALO, N.Y. - Having never attended college let alone taught a class, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff wasn't familiar with the tweed jacket dress code favoured by some professors.
"I went with the track suit," Ruff said, with a chuckle. "You know: the coach's uniform."
That's fine, because this wasn't your conventional course he was teaching.
Season or no season, Ruff and the rest of the team's 100-or-so employees went back to school last month to attend what was called "Sabres University." It featured a series of courses spread over two weeks to help everyone better appreciate how the entire operation works, and to boost morale during the ongoing NHL lockout.
The courses ranged from "The Do's and Don'ts of Social Media," to "The Scouting Process," headed by general manager Darcy Regier. There was a seminar from the ice-making crew in detailing techniques required to create a smooth sheet of game-ready ice. And even Kim Pegula got involved by outlining the team's mission under her and husband Terry Pegula's ownership.
As for Ruff, he taught a class explaining how he gets his defenceman involved in the offensive rush.
Though he'd prefer to be coaching, Ruff found the two-week session enlightening and worthwhile, and something that has the potential to strengthen the entire organization whenever the NHL gets back to business.
"I think it was more than a good idea," he said. "I think when you do something like this, it gives everybody a better understanding of what everybody's trying to get done. And the goal is all the same. We want to entertain fans. We want to win hockey games."
And, Ruff added, "at the end, everybody in the organization is pulling to win a championship."
The idea behind the university-style project was sparked in September when Sabres vice-president Brent Rossi attended a social media training seminar, team president Ted Black said. Rossi returned with so many good ideas that he wanted to make a presentation to other employees.
That idea then mushroomed into getting others involved to share their own expertise, and a "course curriculum" was then designed.
It helped that Sabres staff had plenty of time on their hands and was readily available. Unlike some NHL teams who have laid off employees or cut back on schedules and pay, the Sabres have kept everyone on board during the labour dispute.
"Terry challenged us as an organization, by saying, 'We're not going to lay anyone off or have salary reductions, but use this time to find ways to improve how we do things,'" Black said, referring to Pegula. "And I think the opportunity for all of us to sit together and learn from each other will carry forward and make us a stronger organization."
At the very least, it can't hurt in having provided staff something engaging to look forward to during an uncertain time.
"I'm not going to lie about that. It's been challenging for each of us," Black said. "There are days you sit around saying, 'Geez, I wish we were playing hockey.' But you can't let that consume you. And, as an organization, you can't let that drag us down. There's too many good people here, too many smart people here."
The university-style project was so well received that the Sabres are planning to conduct similar sessions annually during the off-season. Black added another professional sports team and a college athletic department caught wind of the idea. Both have contacted the Sabres in an effort to duplicate it.
Kim Pegula considered the two-week project both enlightening and empowering for staff, because members of every department were able to provide insight into what they do in a group setting.
"I thought it was great that there was no hierarchy or management levels," Pegula said. "This exercise put everybody on the same floor as students."
That included Ruff, who acknowledged being nervous when making his presentation. It didn't matter to him that he stood in the same team meeting room, where he's conducted hundreds of similar sessions in front of his players.
"Yeah, I was a little nervous," he said. "It was my first official class."
As enjoyable as it was, it wasn't lost on Ruff on how much he missed coaching.
"That did cross my mind, to be honest with you," Ruff said. "It's almost like you're looking around at players, but you're not. And that's just kind of how it felt."