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Buffalo Sabres head coach Ted Nolan watches play from behind the bench during the second period against the New York Rangers at First Niagara Center. (Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports)
Buffalo Sabres head coach Ted Nolan watches play from behind the bench during the second period against the New York Rangers at First Niagara Center. (Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports)

MacGregor: Ted Nolan rekindles love for NHL in Buffalo Add to ...

Ted Nolan is used to cramped quarters.

He began life as the 10th of 12 children living in a small house with no running water and no electricity. He has lived in a luxury condominium on Long Island. He has twice been squeezed out of offices.

These days, the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres returns “home” to a hotel room in the city that once feted him as the best in the NHL and, not long after, insulted him with a contract offer that he felt left him no choice but to leave.

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“If there’s anything you learn in this business,” he said. “It’s not to take anything for granted.”

The irony is far from lost on Nolan.

Seventeen years ago, after a fabulously successful season running the Sabres, he was awarded the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach. He feuded, however, with eccentric goaltender Dominik Hasek – a battle of wills that, many believe, led to an early playoff exit the following spring. The team’s general manager, John Muckler (named NHL executive of the year in 1997), was let go; the new GM, Darcy Regier, offered Nolan a one-year contract at a sum so low he felt insulted and left.

Fast forward to 2013: The coach Regier wanted, Lindy Ruff, has been fired (now coaching Dallas Stars), the coach who replaced Ruff, Ron Rolston, was fired 20 games into the new season, Regier has been fired and the coach of the worst team in the NHL is … Ted Nolan.

Make that “interim head coach.” This fall, Sabres owner Terry Pegula talked former Sabres and New York Islanders superstar Pat LaFontaine into coming back to try and fix this mess. LaFontaine, as president of hockey operations, will hire a GM, who will then be able to make his own coaching decisions.

It could be Nolan; it might not be. Whatever, Nolan is more than used to uncertainty.

The Sabres (7-22-2) faced the Senators in Ottawa on Thursday. Two nights earlier, in Buffalo, they had a rare win: in a shootout against the Sens.

“The one thing I liked is the way we competed,” Nolan said before Thursday’s rematch. “It seemed like the guys were having fun.”

Fun has been sadly missing in Buffalo in recent years. Nolan has long been regarded as a “players’ coach,” a person the players revere and, at times, others in the organization resent. His relationships have always been better with those below than those above, though in his current situation, he and LaFontaine have long been close friends.

“If you’re a six-foot player,” said Brad May, who played for Nolan on his first go-round in Buffalo, “Teddy makes you 6 [foot] 2 or 6 [foot] 3 – that’s how good and confident he makes you feel about yourself.”

Nolan had a hardscrabble upbringing: Raised on the Garden River First Nation reserve near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., so poor he and his brother, Steve, had to play on different lines in hockey so they could share a single stick, helmet and pair of gloves.

Nolan’s father died when he was 14, and his mother, Rose, was later killed by a drunk driver. (The Ted Nolan Foundation hands out five Rose Nolan memorial scholarships each year, sending young First Nations women on to postsecondary education.)

He played hockey, briefly reached the NHL and played in 78 games, but his mark has been in coaching.

When he ran the Soo Greyhounds he took a young, troubled player in hand and, today, former-NHLer Chris Simon would say Nolan saved his life. When Nolan found he could not get another NHL job after the first round in Buffalo – it was often said he was being “blackballed” – he coached the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats all the way to the Memorial Cup final.

Moncton was, Nolan says, the greatest coaching experience of his life. The young players would likely say the same: As a team-building project, Nolan bused the team down to New York City, took them to Mamma Mia on Broadway, used hockey connections to have them practise in Madison Square Garden and then took them off to play shinny on LaFontaine’s increasingly-famous outdoor rink on Long Island.

It took him eight years to get back in the NHL, with the Islanders. At first, it went well, but after two years in hockey’s most dysfunctional operation, he was fired.

In the five years since that last NHL job, he and wife Sandra have watched their sons, Brandon and Jordan, launch professional hockey careers. (Jordan won a Stanley Cup in 2012 with the Los Angeles Kings.)

Nolan has also worked with young native players and, nearly three years ago, signed on as coach of … Latvia. He was behind the bench last year when, much to the surprise of the hockey world, that national team landed a coveted berth in the upcoming Olympics.

He plans to fulfill his obligations to Latvia come Sochi in February. Right now, however, his concentration is on the Sabres and the NHL – and just enjoying being back.

“Sometimes,” he said, “when you’re in it, you don’t appreciate what you have until you step outside of it a little bit and get a new view and new perspective of the whole situation.

“What I’ve done in the past, I didn’t really know how I was doing it, I was just doing it. So being away, and being able to analyze it a little bit and then figure out what you did and why you did it and how you did it. This is why I got involved in coaching in the first place,” he said.

“I found that love back.”

 

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