From the where are they now file:
The NHL’s 1997 coach of the year has his face pressed up against the glass at Canada Olympic Park 3, watching the Latvian juniors practice and chatting with the Russian team’s press attaché. This is Ted Nolan’s latest venture into the hockey coaching world, an adviser to the junior team this week and next, but primarily here in his capacity as the head coach of Latvia’s senior men’s team for the 2012 world hockey championships.
Nolan is a familiar figure in the hockey world and this is part of the charm of the world juniors - it attracts people from every part of the industry for a two-week gathering and a chance to get caught up with old acquaintances who, this close to another New Year’s Eve, should definitely not be forgotten.
Nolan is one of those, someone who can be liked and admired at the same time. At age 53, he is once again travelling down a new coaching path thanks to a moment of serendipity that unfolded on a Thursday night back in early August when the telephone rang in the Nolan home. It was Latvia calling, out of the blue. Would he be interested in coaching their men’s team? Yes, he would.
“They called on a Thursday night, on Friday we worked out a deal and Monday, I was there,” said Nolan, of the whirlwind courtship.
The connection to Latvia was former NHL goaltender Arturs Irbe. Irbe and Nolan crossed paths many years ago when the latter interviewed for a position with the San Jose Sharks’ organization. Nolan didn’t get the job, but he was there for training camp and met Irbe, who passed along a recommendation to the federation.
So Nolan is trying to immerse himself in all things Latvian, which has rabid fans wherever they happen to play, but is struggling here at the world juniors and coming off a 14-0 loss to Russia in preliminary round action Thursday night. For the Latvian juniors, the goals are modest at this stage: Try and stay in the A group for next year’s tournament, which they’ll get a chance to do during relegation round play next week.
Nolan has more than his share of experience with handling young players. He broke into the coaching ranks with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds back in 1994 and led them to three Memorial Cup finals, winning in 1993. That got him the job in Buffalo, where he was the Jack Adams winner in 1997 as the NHL’s coach of the year, riding Dominik Hasek’s goaltending and Michael Peca’s two-way play to get the rebuilding, overachieving Sabres into the playoffs. A tiff with then GM John Muckler pushed Nolan out a year later, and he didn’t surface in the NHL until the 2006-07 season when he helped the usually hapless New York Islanders to a 92-point season and an unexpected playoff berth. The next year, after the Islanders couldn’t match that result, he was let go again.
Nolan also got to the Memorial Cup final with Moncton in 2006 and lost the championship game to Patrick Roy and the Quebec Remparts. The gig in Latvia follows three years as the VP of hockey operations with the AHL’s Rochester Americans, which came to an end after Terry Pegula bought the parent team, the Sabres, and changed the administrative structure of their primary farm team.
So now he is handling Latvia, with a mandate “to add a little bit of the North American flavour to their game. I’m looking forward to coaching the world championships. They’re a small country. To stay at this level for as long as they did, it’s pretty impressive.”
Beyond his coaching ventures, Nolan devotes most of his time to the Ted Nolan Foundation, whose mission statement is to promote “healthy lifestyle choices for all aboriginal youth.”
Nolan was raised on the Garden River Reserve near Sault Ste. Marie, and had a 10-year professional career, divided between the NHL (78 games) and the AHL (374 games, 280 points). He began the foundation in 2004 after his mother, Rose, was killed by a drunk driver, and is constantly on the prowl to raise funds to improve educational opportunities for aboriginal youth and to immerse them in physical activity. According to the foundation’s website, “self-esteem is at the base of it all; (and) his programs are interwoven with values inherent in First Nations’ rich heritage.”
Recently, the Ted Nolan Foundation entered into a five-year partnership with the Tim Hortons Children's Foundation, which will permit about 50 aboriginal children to annually attend a camp, focusing on leadership skills.
“I’ve been doing presentations since I was 23,” said Nolan. “I was the first kid from the native community back home to ever make it so they wanted to know how I made it. So I broke down some things - about perseverance, about overcoming obstacles, about how to have a plan and then stick to it. All these places I go, I try to speak to some of the top corporate guys in North America.”
One example: During his time coaching Moncton, Nolan met Robert Irving, of the Irving family, and says he learned a lot about how “having the right people, having a goal, and how you communicate with people.
“I’ve coached 12-year-old kids, 17-year-old kids,” he pauses here, to smile, “28-year-old kids, 35-year-old kids. Everybody needs direction.”
Right now, Nolan is providing direction to Latvian youth. On one of his first visits to Latvia in the summer, Nolan was at a rink and had a tap on the shoulder and turned around and there was Brad McCrimmon, in the house with his Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team, playing in a preseason Kontinental Hockey League tournament. The two, who played against each in the pros, visited the way any two North American ex-patriots do on foreign soil and at the end of the conversation, Nolan asked him how it was going. Good, McCrimmon told him, except for one thing.
“He said, ‘training camps here are forever.’”
What a bizarre turn of events then - that Yaroslavl’s plane went down just as the KHL regular season was about to start.
For Nolan, preparation time is what makes his current assignment so unique. Mostly, in junior or the pros, coaches are so focused on the moment - the next game, the next practice, the next shift. Here, he says, “I have eight months to prepare for one tournament,” he said. “Eight months to decide how are we going to run training camps, and how are we going to translate my systems into Latvian to make it easier for the players. Ninety per cent of the players speak English, so it won’t be that hard.
“This is one of the greatest hockey jobs ever.”
Latvia has been on the fringes of the senior world A pool for years, one of the former Soviet republics that has produced, among others, Irbe, Sandis Ozolinsh, Sergei Zholtok and most recently Raitis Ivanans for NHL teams.
“I think they’ve proven they can play at a certain level,” said Nolan. “Now, to make the next step - to compete against Sweden, to compete against Canada. They have a great program for kids, so there’s no sense re-inventing the wheel.”
But according to Nolan, what they need is someone in the pipeline that they can excited about.
“They’ve had some good players, but to have a special guy? Maybe that’s coming. It’s not there yet. This (Zemgus Girgensons) kid is rated in the first round. He’s a pretty good player.”
THE DUCK WATCH: Could there be a more disappointing NHL team this year than Anaheim, where the Ducks have just 10 wins in 36 games and appear to be getting worse, not better, since the coaching change from Randy Carlyle to Bruce Boudreau. Under Boudreau, the Ducks are 3-7-2; and goaltender Jonas Hiller looks as if he has zero confidence now. Anaheim is leaky defensively and everyone can share the blame for that - its inexperienced defence corps and forwards that in Thursday night’s loss to the Vancouver Canucks back-checked with all the urgency of a Sunday driver, out for a leisurely ride. The Big Three (Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry) is underperforming; there is limited support from the supporting cast and maybe the saddest thing of all is that they are wasting Teemu Selanne’s final NHL season; he is the one bright spot on a team that looks as if it is going nowhere in a hurry; and has little of hope of making a second-half surge to the playoffs.
COLUMBUS WATCH: And speaking of underperforming teams stuck at 10 wins, here are the Columbus Blue Jackets, coming off a victory over the Dallas Stars, but forced to play the next four-to-six weeks without James Wisnewski, who fractured an ankle in that victory and will be out until February. Wisnewski has been a good addition when he’s played - and that eight-game suspension he served off the top of the season, along with Steve Mason’s struggles in goal, put the Blue Jackets behind the eight-ball early. As of today, Anaheim has 16 points to make up to get a playoff and Columbus 17. It is safe to say that both will be open for business, when the trade market starts to heat up soon.
GETTING ALL JIGGY ABOUT IT: Colorado has made a surge of late and the Avs’ Saturday date with the Ducks is a big one, if only because it is J.S. Giguere’s first game back in Anaheim (a team he led to the Stanley Cup in 2007) since he was traded to Toronto back on Jan. 31, 2010, almost exactly 23 months ago. Giguere has been part of Colorado’s recent revival; his strong play seemed to pick up Semyon Varlamov the past week or so. You would think Giguere will get the call against the Ducks; on Friday morning, he was reminiscing on a conference call with reporters about his time in Anaheim, which represented the best days of his hockey-playing life. The Ducks essentially revived and maybe even saved his career when they acquired his rights from the Calgary Flames for a second-round pick in June of 2000. The Flames made Giguere available because they’d determined not to protect him in that year’s NHL expansion draft. According to Giguere, he’d lost something like 17 games in a row in the minors for Calgary and acknowledged: “My career wasn’t going anywhere.” But the Ducks had goaltending guru Francois Allaire on their staff; and Giguere met with Allaire that summer; and started the long process of rebuilding his game into the shot blocker that he became. He started the 2000-01 season playing for AHL Cincinnati, was promoted to the big club later that year; and hasn’t played in the minors since. “From there, I never looked back,” said Giguere.
AND FINALLY: Jason Blake, who was traded to the Ducks by Toronto in the Giguere deal, has missed most of the season with an injury - a nasty skate cut - but is skating again and could play within the week ... Returns are also on the horizon for a couple of defencemen who were big stars two years ago, Washington’s Mike Green and Buffalo’s Tyler Myers. Green has missed 21 games with a groin injury and may be a week away. Myers is recovering from wrist surgery and his estimated return is about two weeks out ... Colorado will be monitoring the health of its young star, Matt Duchene, who injured his right leg when his skate got caught in a rut Thursday night and limped off in noticeable discomfort. Some sort of update should be available later Friday.