As the weeks went by this summer, Ted Nolan couldn’t help but notice the number of coaching positions being filled by teams at all levels of hockey.
Throughout it all, his phone never rang once.
At least it didn’t until late last week when the desperate Latvian hockey federation placed a long distance call and offered him the chance to coach the struggling national team. He barely hesitated before accepting the position.
“You’ve just got to have faith and belief that things will work out,” Nolan told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. “My perseverance and my patience have been really, really tested. I sent out resumes to teams (in North America) to see if there’s any coaching vacancies within their organization and received no replies. …
“It’s kind of tough to go through it, but maybe I just didn’t fit in.”
Nolan is no stranger to feeling like an outsider. He waited nine years to get another coaching job after parting ways with the Buffalo Sabres in 1997—following a season where he won the Jack Adams Award—and has said in the past that he believes racism played a role in the long hiatus.
An Ojibwa from the Garden River First Nation Reserve in northern Ontario, Nolan’s last coaching stint with the New York Islanders ended in 2008.
He most recently spent two years as vice-president of hockey operations with the AHL’s Rochester Americans but longed to get back behind the bench.
“I’ve been sending out resumes here for the last number of years and not getting a phone call back,” said Nolan. “Then all of a sudden you get a call from a (national team), which was very humbling. I’m very honoured.”
The hockey-mad Baltic country has fallen on hard times. Latvia’s world ranking dropped to 12th after a disappointing 13th-place finish at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in May, costing former coach Olegs Znaroks, two assistants and general manager Sandis Ozolinsh their jobs.
That led to a “difficult” summer for the entire federation, according to president Kirovs Lipmans, who indicated five candidates were considered for the coaching job.
“We were looking for a neutral, authoritative coach with lots of experience and good hockey knowledge,” said Lipmans. “This is exactly what we found with Ted Nolan.”
Nolan’s credentials were so strong that he was given the job without a formal interview. The 53-year-old signed a one-year deal that includes an option for additional years.
He’ll visit Riga for the first time later this month and plans to do a fair amount of travelling back and forth from his permanent residence in Canada.
It promises to be a challenge unlike any he’s faced before as a coach—and not just because of potential cultural or language barriers. Unlike the pace of a relentless NHL season, there will be a lot of time to prepare for big events like the world championship.
“Now I get to see all the names on the board, I’ll get to watch (the players) all season and see what works with what,” said Nolan. “It’s kind of like putting a big jigsaw puzzle together for six or eight months and then all of a sudden you have competition.
“It’s a unique experience. It’s going to be fun and exciting.”
A handful of former NHL coaches have taken jobs with European national teams in recent years. Curt Fraser and Glen Hanlon both had stints with Belarus and Hanlon also coached Slovakia before getting fired earlier this year.
Nolan already has a relationship with two of the players that Latvia will likely be calling on. Oskars Bartulis and Martins Karsums were each part of his Moncton Wildcats team that went all the way to the Memorial Cup final in 2006.
They’ll already be familiar with one of Nolan’s favourite teaching messages.
“My whole philosophy in coaching has always been based on the way I got raised in a First Nation community,” said Nolan. “We have always worried about now. (I had) the Ojibwa word for now … written on a lot of T-shirts when I was coaching up in Moncton. Just worry about now.
“I’m just going to worry about now and concentrate on what we have to do to make Latvia a very strong team.”