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TORONTO – One of the most surreal moments in the history of the Buffalo Sabres took place Wednesday in the rear parking lot of the Northtown Center at Amherst. The players were still shaking their heads over it and the shock had yet to dissipate early Thursday afternoon following their pregame skate in Air Canada Centre.

It was 3 p.m. Wednesday, the appointed time the team was leaving for the trip here, and coach Lindy Ruff had not yet arrived. When he showed up a couple of minutes late, boarded the bus and told the team he and his staff had some news, everyone figured it was a trade. Maybe a big one to shake up a struggling team.

Instead, Ruff gave them word his time as their coach was over. Ruff thanked them and hopped back off, initially leaving everyone in stunned silence.

“That’s when we totally realized changes were on the way,” captain Jason Pominville said in Toronto on Thursday. “We all said, ‘We gotta go out there and see him.’ It was pretty emotional for everyone.”

The players lined up in the parking lot for a quick handshake and a quick hug with their now-former coach. Then they were off to continue their season, minus the man who has been the coach of the franchise since July 21, 1997.

“He’s a great person, a great guy,” Pominville said. “He’s done a lot of great things for the city and organization. It 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 winger 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.”

Center Tyler Ennis said the players were happy Ruff told them the news himself.

“We all have a lot of respect for him doing that,” Ennis said. “We could all tell he was upset and emotional and it was emotional for us too. It’s a big change for us. He’s been here for so long that it’s tough on the human side of things to be a part of that. A lot of us feel like we let him down.”

Easily the most emotional member of the Blue and Gold was assistant coach James Patrick, who played with Ruff while with the New York Rangers, played under him with Buffalo (including the 1999 Stanley Cup finalists) and has coached under him since 2006.

Glassy-eyed and in a voice choked with emotion, Patrick said he and fellow assistants Teppo Numminen, Kevyn Adams and Jim Corsi had no idea what was going on when Ruff came on the bus. Patrick said it was a “pretty awkward feeling” to not have Ruff with the club.

“He’s been a former teammate and then he coached me and then I worked with him. I feel so blessed to have all this experience with him, to have him as a mentor,” Patrick said. “I felt that way about him 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.”

Winger Patrick Kaleta – one of 12 Sabres whose entire NHL career has been spent under Ruff – has a particular affinity for the former coach. The Angola native played his 280th NHL game Thursday, easily the most by a Western New York native with the Sabres.

“You couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than he gave me,” Kaleta said. “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. ... Lindy has been a big part of the organization as long as I can remember, even growing up. I wish him all the best.”

As the NHL schedule moved on Thursday, winger Drew Stafford admitted the team was still “trying to process what had happened” on that bus and in that parking lot in Amherst the day before.

“There’s no other word to describe it except just shocking,” Stafford said. “A lot of guys were sitting there ready to go and it was a normal day. Then all of a sudden he came on, shared the news and it definitely got emotional pretty quick.

“I don’t know any different. He’s been my coach my whole career. A lot of disappointment comes when we realize we should have been playing a lot better. The onus is on us obviously. We’re the ones playing the game. We didn’t get it done and he has to pay the price for it.”

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.”

email: mharrington@buffnews.com