There aren’t many free spirits left at the highest levels of hockey.
Brett Hull? We miss him daily.
Jeremy Roenick. What would he say next?
Fresh off a fat new television deal, the NHL is a billionaire’s club now, a button-down, 24/7 business operation that takes itself soooo seriously.
Coaches are very much a part of this change. Once, they got paid like teachers or truck drivers and spoke freely, critically. Today, they earn millions to implement “systems” and break down video, hoping that the millionaire players don’t tune them out after a couple of seasons.
Ted Nolan has never fit the mould of the typical hockey coach. An Ojibway, Nolan grew up on the Garden River First Nation Reserve near Sault Ste. Marie, played as a junior for the OHL Soo Greyhounds and then on to a professional playing career that included 78 NHL games with Detroit and Pittsburgh. The farther he ventured from his Northern Ontario home, the more racism he encountered.
Those taunts did not diminish his spirit, nor wipe the handsome grin off his visage, on display again Thursday in Ottawa, as Nolan arrived as the head coach of the transitioning Buffalo Sabres, where old faces are trying to forge a fresh, meaningful identity.
“I’m really enjoying it,” said Nolan, who has been on the job for a month, replacing Ron Rolston. Nolan last coached the Sabres in 1996-97, when flighty goaltender Dominik Hasek was at his peak and John Muckler was general manager in Buffalo. Muckler was later fired and Nolan earned a reputation as a GM-killer.
“Sometimes when you’re in it (the NHL), you don’t appreciate what you have. You step outside for a bit and you get a new view, a new perspective,” Nolan says. Even if, in today’s wired world, scrutiny is such that “you can’t have a bad practice, let alone a bad game,” he added.
Reflecting on his near-forgotten time as an NHL head coach – he won the Jack Adams Award in 1997 – has helped Nolan rekindle the “love” he had for being behind a bench in the world’s top league.
And yet, he insists one of his greatest hockey experiences was coaching the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL several years ago, working for team owner Robert Irving, a New Brunswick industrialist whom Nolan compares favorably with Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
Nolan delivered Irving a league championship in 2006, and very nearly, a Memorial Cup. He also helped convince Irving to spend his money creatively where the hockey team was concerned. One such investment was an overnight bus ride to New York City for a “team bonding” retreat, featuring a hockey practice at Madison Square Garden and a Broadway show (as Nolan recalls, it was Mamma Mia). The highlight of the tour, though, was the team’s shinny game on the legendary outdoor rink of Hall of Famer Pat Lafontaine at his home in Lloyd Harbor, on the North Shore of Long Island.
In more recent years, Nolan enjoyed a quieter period, focused on being a hockey dad. Both Brandon and Jordan Nolan played in the NHL, and Jordan was a member of the championship Los Angeles Kings in 2012. Jordan is still on L.A.’s roster and will be in Ottawa Saturday when the Kings visit the Senators at Canadian Tire Centre.
Is is strange to return as a coach, but now with a son in the league?
“Not at all,” Nolan says. “I was really proud – you’re proud of your boys no matter what they do,” Nolan says. “But seeing him (Jordan) with the Stanley Cup a couple of years ago in L.A. was a great treat. And now it’s more of a family affair.”
Nobody was more surprised to see Nolan land back in Buffalo than Nolan himself. Some would suggest Nolan was blackballed, at least snubbed, before and after coaching the New York Islanders in 2007-08, although, he did decline coaching offers from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Islanders in the late 1990s. Then, he all but disappeared.
Lafontaine, recently hired by Sabres owner Terry Pegula to be the new president of the club, contacted the 55-year-old Nolan while he was coaching Latvia’s national men’s team.
And yes, Nolan will fulfill his commitment to coach Latvia at the Sochi Olympic hockey tournament in February.
“That’s one thing I mentioned to Pat Lafontaine when he called me,” Nolan says. “I was over in Germany, and was just coming back from Latvia. We had played an exhibition series against Russia – and we worked two and a half years to get into the Olympics.
“We had to qualify last year in Riga, Latvia . . . it will be nice to finish what we started.”
Arturs Irbe and Sandis Ozolinsh will help fill the void while Nolan is focused on coaching the Sabres up until the Olympics.
Those who follow the team note the upswing in humanity and humour around the Sabres room since Nolan returned. Not the most technical coach, he has always been a motivator, along the lines of Pat Quinn.
What the future holds for Nolan in Buffalo is unclear, as Lafontaine has begun a GM search. Nolan is enjoying each day as it comes, neither buying nor renting – but staying at a hotel until further notice, temporary digs for a free spirit.
“The word is ‘interim’ coach,” he says. “If there’s anything you learn in this business, it’s not to take anything for granted.”