BUFFALO, N.Y. – Ted Nolan really wanted tickets to see “Book of Mormon” on Broadway.
Pat LaFontaine has a guy who can make that happen, so he assured his former coach it wasn’t a problem. Then, after learning he’d be taking over as the Buffalo Sabres’ president of hockey operations, LaFontaine revived his role as a prankster from his playing days and told Nolan the theatre tickets for him and his family weren’t happening.
Instead, he wanted Nolan to come back to the NHL and coach the Sabres.
“It was just total silence,” LaFontaine recalled. “And he said, ‘You’re kidding me.'”
LaFontaine wasn’t kidding. As part of an organizational change on the fly that saw general manager Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston fired, Nolan took the job as coach for at least the rest of the season, which began Friday night with a 3-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
When LaFontaine called, Nolan felt similar emotions to his wedding day, the birth of his first child and his first game as an NHL head coach. He last coached in North America in 2008, so this was a special occasion.
“There are certain moments in your life that you’ll always remember, and when Patty called me to inform me, that was one of those moments,” Nolan said. “I did get very emotional.”
Nolan fought back tears at the press conference commencing the LaFontaine era Wednesday, but since then he hasn’t had time to be nervous. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native was more worried about going through the crash course of learning his players’ names.
Hired and commended for his communication skills, that’s a nice first step.
“What I think he’s going to be able to do is be able to get an identity on the team because he was really good at that,” said former Sabres goaltender Marty Biron, who played under Nolan in 1995-96. “He’s such a strong motivator.”
Motivating and teaching are two of Nolan’s key duties for a Sabres team that is looking toward the future after a 4-15-1 start. LaFontaine will hire a new GM in the coming weeks and spend the rest of the year evaluating talent for the rebuild that is already under way.
LaFontaine chose Nolan to oversee the final 62 games from behind the bench because of what he showed in four seasons as an NHL head coach with Buffalo and the New York Islanders.
“He can relate to players. He’s been through this,” LaFontaine said. “You have to truly care about the players and connect with players and then find out what’s the best way to get those players to perform individually and then collectively and then raise their standard.”
The standard was set low early this season for the league-worst Sabres. Nolan knows it’s impossible to erase the horrendous start, but a new voice is a good place to begin to turn things around.
“I’m not really too concerned of what they’ve done. I’ve never been. It’s what we’re going to do,” Nolan said. “It’s a new day, a new beginning. Let’s start fresh.”
So far, players are buying what Nolan’s selling. The mood around the locker-room Friday morning was positive after an up-tempo morning skate, and captain Steve Ott said it felt like everyone had a “legitimate clean slate” under Nolan.
“Right away he’s got a lot of respect for all the guys, and I think the guys have grabbed his respect right off the bat as well,” Ott said. “He’s preaching the work ethic and that’s something that we all know in here and hold each other accountable for.”
The last time Nolan worked for the Sabres, he won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Even though he had a tumultuous exit from the team in 1997, that earns him some respect.
Nolan’s only other stint in the league came from 2006 to 2008 with the Islanders. He spent time in the front office of the AHL’s Rochester Americans from 2009 to 2011 and has coached the Latvian national team since then.
Biron has fond memories of Nolan, who allowed him to start his first career NHL game and play at the Montreal Forum. But Biron doesn’t know for sure if this experiment will have positive results.
“Do I think it’s a hundred per cent slam dunk? No, I don’t,” Biron said in a phone interview. “Patty, I think it’s a hundred per cent slam dunk. Ted I’m not sure. But it’s no disrespect to him or anything, it’s just he’s been away from the game for a while, he’s had a stint in the Island and that went away again. There’s a lot that he will need to kind of prove to the organization, to the players themselves, to be able to do that.”
The initial returns are good. Forward Zemgus Girgensons, who played for Latvia under Nolan at the world championships, likes his consistency.
“He wants all the guys to work hard and just give all they got,” Girgensons said. “Same as with national team.”
After what LaFontaine described as a “culture of fear and uncertainty” around the organization, Nolan is the clean slate. As such, his direction to players has been simple.
“That’s, I think, what Nolan wanted when he got here: Just to get the energy back,” veteran defenceman Henrik Tallinder said. “‘Don’t worry about making mistakes, don’t worry about anything. Just as long as you compete, you’ll be fine.’ That was basically the message.”
Nolan understands that plenty has changed about coaching in the NHL since his last gig. But he believes that the foundation of success is the same.
“It’s the best league in the world. If you don’t compete you don’t have no chance to win,” Nolan said. “If you do compete, even if you have the most skilled team in the world, if they don’t compete they don’t win.”
That’s pretty simply, but it’s a powerful enough philosophy that it led to LaFontaine calling to make sure Nolan was willing to return to Buffalo 16 years after coaching him with the Sabres.
“It just seemed like this is right, this is what it’s supposed to be right now,” LaFontaine said. “I said: ‘Everything you’ve learned, good and bad, ups and downs, struggles, is going to prepare you for what you’re going to do this year.’ And then we’ll see what happens going forward. He deserved this opportunity, and I think he’s the right guy.”