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Two months ago in Ottawa, Ted Nolan, “interim coach” of the Buffalo Sabres, was asked what he planned to do about Latvia now that he had found himself back where he’d long wished to be and long should have been.
He said he had made a commitment and would keep it.
He might be interim head coach of a National Hockey League team, but he was also head coach of a ragtag team of players he’d mostly never heard of from a country he had no idea even where it was when they called.
That was going on three years ago. As of Wednesday, Ted Nolan knew exactly where Latvia was: going head-to-head against Team Canada for a chance to enter the medal round in Olympics men’s hockey.
Before that match was through – right up until the 13 minute 6 second-mark of the third period – there was a possibility he might wake up Thursday Public Enemy No. 1 in the land of his birth.
Shea Weber’s power-play goal gave Team Canada a 2-1 win and saved Canada from what would have gone as the most-surprising, likely most-embarrassing defeat in the country’s hockey history. Instead, it put an end to a Cinderella story that came within two goals of the glass slipper. A fairy tale, even in defeat.
“I think we have more rinks in my home town of Sault Ste. Marie than the whole country,” Nolan said when the remarkable game was over.
“I think we have 1,200 registered players, and to play a team like Team Canada and Team Sweden and keep them tight the way we did – it doesn't matter how many shots you get, it's how many go in the net – so to play them tough the way we did, I'm extremely proud of them.”
It was through coaching Latvia that the 55-year-old Nolan rediscovered his passion for coaching – something he had largely lost through two previous experiences in the NHL that ended bitterly.
“Sometimes,” he said in Ottawa back in December, “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 on the whole thing.
“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 and how you did it – this is why I got involved in coaching in the first place.
“I got that love back.”
And now Latvia is loving him back. A country far better known for its outrageous hockey fans than for its struggling national team shocked the hockey world a year ago by merely qualifying for the Olympics under Nolan’s direction. They beat out teams like Kazakhstan, which had been expected to return to the Winter Games.
The Latvians came to Sochi and played respectably, but without success, losing 5-3 to Sweden, 4-2 to the Czechs and, thanks to another late goal, 1-0 to the Swiss.
They played Switzerland again when, suddenly, games mattered, and they managed to scrape together a 2-0 lead early and hold it. The Swiss made it 2-1 but an empty net goal threw Nolan and the Latvian bench into a victory celebration that would itself win a gold medal if only there were such an event.
It is not as if the Latvians were completely inept at hockey before Nolan took over. Sandis Ozolinsh had once been an NHL star but had “retired” to the KHL to play out his career. Nolan convinced him to come play for the national team and, at 40, Ozolinsh wears the captain’s “C.” Kaspars Daugavins played in the past for Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins, and young Zemgus Girgensons is playing for Nolan in Buffalo. Goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis is a Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick.
What Nolan did for the Latvians is what he did for the Sabres the first time around and later for the New York Islanders: he got them to believe in themselves. In both instances the Sabres and Islanders management one day stopped believing in Ted Nolan, but when he took over the benches, especially in the early going, he had great success as a “players’ coach.”
So, too, with Latvia has he been a player's coach. He brought back Ozolinsh, a riverboat-gambling defenceman one NHL coach once called “our best forward.” He let them use their own language in the dressingroom and tried to learn some himself.
Most importantly, he brought to them a coaching philosophy so rare in today’s NHL that is considered blasphemous merely to utter: he lets players play.
“The game is way over-coached,” he once said. “Just let guys be who they are. Don’t try and get into their heads and psyches.
“Let the players play.”
“We never had a coach that actually believes in the players,” Daugavins told reporters here in Sochi. “It’s always been, like, army style, where everybody just has to work hard and you never get a tap on your shoulders saying ‘Good job, buddy.’”
“I just believe in doing the right things,” Nolan said following Wednesday’s match. “And if you do the right things, usually you get rewarded for it.”
Nolan said he could relate to the Latvians because they have struggled and hardly anyone ever believed in them. Just as Ted Nolan once had it.
He grew up on the Garden River First Nation reserve near the Soo. It was a tough life of wood stove, no running water and precious little money. When he and brother Steve went out for minor hockey, the coach had to put them on different lines as the Nolans were so poor they had only one stick, one helmet and a single pair of gloves and the two brothers would have to hand off to each other each line change.
Nolan’s father died when Ted was only 14 and his mother, Rose, was later killed by a drunk driver. (The Ted Nolan Foundation hands out scholarships that send young First Nations women on to post-secondary education.) He believes in paying back and has long been a major voice in aboriginal circles.
He had to fight to make the NHL, fight to remain in the NHL, fight to become a coach the first time – winning the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year with the Sabres back in 1996, gone a year later – and fight to get back into NHL with the long-dysfunctional Islanders, only to be fired after two seasons.
Much to his own surprise, he returned to the NHL last fall after a five-year absence when Buffalo ownership decided to make sweeping changes and brought in Pat LaFontaine to serve as president. LaFontaine, an old friend, offered Nolan the “interim” job until a proper general manager could be hired and the new GM would then be free to decide on a permanent coach. Last month LaFontaine hired Tim Murray from the Ottawa Senators to fill that management position and, eventually, decide on Nolan’s future.
One thing is for certain: if he doesn't have one in Buffalo, he most surely has one in Latvia.
As for his future plans for the Little Team that Almost Could: “I plan on coaching the World Championships this year.”
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