TORONTO -- On his way out of the Air Canada Centre after a morning skate that was missing a familiar face, Ryan Miller reflected on Day 1 without his longtime coach Lindy Ruff.
"Lindy did a lot for me in my career," the Buffalo Sabres star netminder told ESPN.com Thursday before a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. "He gave me an opportunity to go in the net. It takes a lot of trust to keep putting a goalie back in the net. I got my start with Lindy. We had some good years and some tough ones in there too. But we went through the ups and downs and I have a lot of respect for him. Considering how long he’s been there, I wish we had done better by him so he could have had a little bit of a cleaner break, I guess. Although in pro sports, you rarely get that."
Looking back, was Miller sensing Ruff’s job was in trouble when he delivered a postgame rant Sunday directed at his teammates?
"It wasn't so much buying the coach more time but it’s ... you’re responsible as a player to play a certain way," Miller said. "We've struggled to find an identity with this team for a few years now, if not four years. It’s come and gone. We've gotten close. At the end of last year we were playing good hockey and beating everybody. And then this year we’re in the same mental space: We don’t have that consistent confidence, for whatever reason. So it wasn't really about trying to buy Lindy time as much as trying to step up and make the guys realize it’s on them. Lindy gave us a system to play and we weren't playing it."
Ruff’s firing wasn't your run-of-the-mill coaching change. Sixteen years as Sabres coach leaves an impact and a legacy.
To a man, these players still appeared to be in shock Thursday, following a day in which they had a 90-minute practice under Ruff only to find out before a bus trip to Toronto -- from Ruff himself -- that their coach was done.
"A strange day yesterday; it’s still strange today being out there and not seeing Lindy around," said leading scorer Thomas Vanek.
"It was shocking and surprising. He was the only coach I ever had. Obviously we didn't produce wins, but inside the room I thought everything was going as good as it can."
Captain Jason Pominville also sounded like a man still trying to make sense of it all.
"Being around Lindy for basically my whole pro career, you get to know him as a person," he said. "It was just a tough day, a weird day for everyone. It just shows how he is as a person and how professional he is to come on the bus and tell us what happened."
GM Darcy Regier broke the news to Ruff at the coach’s home in suburban Buffalo. Ruff then asked Regier if he could see his players off and inform them of the change.
Talk about a scene. The players didn't know a thing until Ruff hopped on the bus and told them. Even Ruff’s assistant coaches weren't aware yet.
"It was definitely emotional," said winger Drew Stafford. "We were sitting there waiting to go and Lindy came on the bus and shared the news. We were sitting there trying to process what just happened."
Then one by one, the players got off the bus and shook Ruff’s hand, thanking him for what he had done for them.
"You could see the disappointment in his eyes and there’s nothing you could say to make him feel better," said Vanek. "I shook his hand and said sorry I couldn't be better for him. At the end of the day, the coach gets fired, it’s a reflection of your team and I’m a leader on this team."
The players have taken it to heart that they’re partly to blame for the firing.
"Anytime something like this happens, it’s unfortunate that most cases it’s the coach that pays," said Pominville. "But at the end of the day we’re the players that are out there that need to execute better. Unfortunately we weren't up to par and we weren't good enough."
The Sabres held their first meeting Wednesday night at the hotel with interim coach Ron Rolston, followed by another morning meeting with the new bench boss at Air Canada Centre.
The players say they like what they've heard so far from Rolston, who has coached the team’s AHL affiliate the last two seasons. But Wednesday night was about soul searching for some players after arriving to their Toronto hotel.
"The whole rest of the night we were sitting around reflecting on everything and where we could have been better and what went wrong," said Stafford. "It’s definitely a tough situation for a guy like myself and a handful of guys in here who have never gone through a coaching change. Lindy has been my coach my whole career. I don’t know any different."
Down the hall at Air Canada Centre on Thursday morning, Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle could certainly empathize with Ruff. Just a season ago he was canned in Anaheim after a long run with the Ducks.
"I’m sure he’s wondering what he’s going to do today," said Carlyle. "Because yesterday he was working and running a hockey club. He’s probably driving around today and wondering what he’s going to do today."
The first 48 hours, Carlyle said, friends and colleagues are calling nonstop and that helps get you through it.
"And then the phone goes quiet," said the Leafs coach. "Then you don’t hear from a lot of people in the weeks after. If he wants to stay involved in the game, and I’m sure he wants to coach again, I would say there’s a two-week period or a month, or whatever suits you best for you and your family, and then you get back out there. That’s what I did. The most difficult time is going back into the building when you’re not the coach. That’s the most difficult one."