When I spoke with Ted Nolan a few days after the New York Islanders’ season ended in early April, he didn’t sound at all confident he would be returning as that team’s head coach for a third year.
“I haven’t given a whole lot of thought to next year,” Nolan said, his voice trailing off in a manner that made you think he wanted the subject to change. “So many things can happen between now and then, it’s pretty hard to say what scenarios you’ll be dealing with.”
Last week, what likely was his worst-case scenario turned into reality when Isles GM Garth Snow fired Nolan because of “philosophical differences” – the primary one being that neither man could stomach a philosophy that required both of them to exist in the same organization together.
Thanks to his history of battles with upper management (see Muckler, J. and the Sabres, Buffalo), there are many who will presume (a) it was simply another demonstration that Nolan doesn’t play well with others; and (b) any GM who wants to minimize migraine attacks should do anything other than offer his vacant coaching job to the 1996-97 NHL coach of the year.
To me, that type of reaction is a little rash and a lot unfair.
Given where the Isles are in this, their 25th year of rebuilding, it should surprise no one that Nolan and Snow would wind up at odds.
To his credit, Snow understands that the franchise – in part because of its decrepit arena and its current occupation of the low rung on the ladder of New York-area sports teams – will have to build from within before attracting top-level free agents and taking the next step into true championship contention.
That means there’s still a lot of youth, a lot of mistakes, a lot of patience yet to come.
However, to his credit as a coach, Nolan wants only to win as many games as possible, as soon as possible, with any player who can help him do it on the ice. For a man like him, who had been blackballed out of the league for a decade after the debacle in Buffalo, it was of paramount importance he resurrect his reputation both in the short and long term.
That meant he wasn’t prepared for the slow build and rookie-laden lineups.
In sum, then, the GM wanted to win later and the coach wanted to win now. That’s hardly the first time a professional sports team has faced such a conundrum. So why is there an effort in certain circles to demonize Nolan?
Beats me. All I know is, the guy won 74 games with the Islanders in two seasons – no small feat when you consider he had a dog’s breakfast roster to work with, as well as a GM who didn’t hire him scanning his every move.
To be sure, Nolan isn’t without fault for his demise on Long Island. If even half of the whispers out there about some of his behind-the-scenes actions are true, he probably deserves the majority of the blame.
But in a results-oriented business, there is no doubt he produced some pretty damn decent results.
And if it takes another decade for Nolan to find another NHL job, it will be just as unfair as the last banishment he suffered through and ultimately triumphed over.
Adam Proteau is The Hockey News’ online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays and Fridays, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.