When he was asked why he waited so long to fire general manager Darcy Regier – months past the optimum time in early spring for a new regime to prepare for an NHL draft, so long that fans at First Niagara Center were screaming “Fire Regier!” after every loss – Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula said: “I give people a chance.”
Watch: Sabres clean house, bring back LaFontaine and Nolan
It was the same thing he told Sabres icon Pat LaFontaine, who was introduced Wednesday morning as the NHL team’s new president of hockey operations after Regier and head coach Ron Rolston were fired after the Sabres (4-15-1) finally managed to win their first game at home last Tuesday.
“One of the things I said to Pat when he came in was, ‘One thing you should find comforting is you can see the way I hang in with my people,’” Pegula said. “In other words, your first mistake, you’re not out.”
If Pegula means he thinks it is a good idea people learn from their mistakes, then maybe there is some hope for long-suffering Sabres fans. For Pegula certainly needs to learn from the mistakes he made since buying the Sabres 2 1/2 years ago.
Maybe he has. It is a good sign that he hired LaFontaine, a Hall of Famer who played for the Sabres from 1991 to 1997, and LaFontaine, 48, was sensible enough to avoid the title of GM, saying he will hire one with the requisite experience.
Another nice touch was bringing back Ted Nolan, enormously popular with the players and fans when he coached the Sabres from 1995 to 1997. And it was a good idea for LaFontaine to call Nolan, 55, the interim head coach, saying the decision to make him permanent will be left to the next GM. (How about another ex-Sabre, Rick Dudley, for that job?)
Like most new owners whose wallets are as large as their knowledge of hockey is small, Pegula barged into the hockey department. Eager to blow up the Sabres’ reputation for stinginess, Pegula pushed Regier into spending big on players.
But Regier’s decisions did not work out, although it was partly because Buffalo is not a preferred destination for the NHL’s best players. Defenceman Robyn Regehr and his big contract came in a trade and did not perform to expectations. Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino were also free-agent disappointments. And first-round draft pick Tyler Myers started regressing after being named NHL rookie of the year in 2009-10.
By the end of last season, the Sabres were an embarrassment and Regier had fired his best friend and head coach, Lindy Ruff, who was Regier’s first major hire when he became the GM in 1997. It was quickly apparent Rolston was overmatched as an NHL head coach and the Sabres slid to the bottom of the NHL this season.
Nolan, who grew emotional as he talked about his family Wednesday, said he always dreamed of getting another chance to coach the Sabres. He left when the newly-hired Regier would only offer him a one-year contract extension, which Nolan took as a constructive dismissal.
“When I got relieved of my duties back when I was coaching here,” he said, “obviously, you take it personally and emotionally. I was pretty upset.
“I also believe things happen for certain reasons. If I didn’t get let go then, I wouldn’t have had a chance to watch my boys grow up as I did.”
This is the second time LaFontaine has worked with Nolan in running an NHL team. In June of 2006, LaFontaine was hired as senior adviser to New York Islanders owner Charles Wang, with Neil Smith coming aboard as GM and Nolan as head coach. But when Wang (who can teach Pegula a thing or two about wacky owners) fired Smith six weeks later, LaFontaine, who starred with the Islanders from 1983 to 1991, resigned in protest.
Nolan got the Isles into the 2006-07 playoffs but he was fired in the summer of 2008 by new GM Garth Snow. Since the summer of 2011, Nolan has been head coach of the Latvian men’s hockey team and led them to a berth in the 2014 Olympics. He said Wednesday the Sabres gave him permission to coach the Latvians in February at the Sochi Games.
Nolan was chosen because he is a players’ coach who has the ability to quickly turn around a dispirited group like the Sabres, who face a home-and-home series with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday and Saturday.
“There’s nobody better to work in the locker room to bring players together than Ted Nolan,” LaFontaine said.
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