By Mike Harrington
TORONTO -- Today is the first day since July 20, 1997 that Lindy Ruff is not the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. Jeez. Think of everything that has gone on in the hockey world since then, or just simply in life.
For 12 players and three of the four assistant coaches on the roster, Ruff is the only head coach they've ever played for or worked under in the NHL. So it's pretty surreal that they're getting ready for tonight's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs without him.
The players and coaches were on the bus in Amherst yesterday to come to Toronto and some said it was odd Ruff wasn't there yet. When he showed up, he hopped on board and said he had some news. Several thought he was announcing a trade. Instead, he said he was fired and thanked them. And then he hopped off.
"That's when we totally realized changes were on the way," captain Jason Pominville said here today. "We all said, "We gotta go out there and see him.' It was pretty emotional for everyone."
Standing in a parking lot in Amherst, Pominville said there was plenty of disbelief as to what was going on.
"He's a great person, a great guy," Pominville said. "He's done a lot of great things for the city and organization. It's was just a tough way to say goodbye. Obviously we would have liked to have had more time. Everyone was kind of waiting in line to talk to him."
"It was very hard. I spent eight years with him," added Thomas Vanek. "It was very difficult. I just went out to shake his hand and wished him well. I told him I was sorry I couldn't do more."
Everyone exchanged hugs and good wishes and then they were off to another game and a new chapter in franchise history. Ruff, meanwhile, is off to an uncertain future.
"You couldn't ask for a better opportunity than he gave me," said Angola native Patrick Kaleta. "He basically made a Buffalo kid's dream come true. I'm thankful for everything he's done for me on and off the ice in my career."
"He took it like a man takes it. He came on the bus and told us himself," said center Tyler Ennis. "We all have a lot of respect for him doing that. We could all tell he was upset and emotional and it was emotional for us too. It's a big change for us. A lot of us feel like we let him down."
Easily the most emotional person I talked to today was the one who has been around Ruff the longest and that's assistant coach James Patrick. He was a teammate of Ruff's in the early 90s with the New York Rangers, played under him in Buffalo (including the 1999 Cup finalists) and has been an assistant here since 2006.
"I feel so blessed to have all this experience with him, to have him as a mentor," Patrick said. "I felt that way as a player. I thought he was a great coach as a player and I had 15 NHL head coaches. I learned so much from him. He's an incredible person. There's very few people like him."
Said Vanek: "I keep waiting for Lindy to come back. But obviously that's not going to happen. As a group, we have to move on and get better."
Click the audio files below to go around the locker room on what will likely be some of the final post-mortems on Ruff's tenure:
taggedJames Patrick | Jason Pominville | Lindy Ruff | Patrick Kaleta | Tyler Ennis