To hell and back: The Ted Nolan story

One of my favorite movies growing up was Braveheart. Whether it was on AMC or HBO, censored or uncensored, if I came across it, I was watching it. There is blood and guts and terrific dialogue from Mel Gibson, but I love a few funny lines from just before the Scots battle with the English when Wallace first appeared to his troops..

Soldier: William Wallace is seven feet tall!

William Wallace: Yes, I've heard. Kills men by the hundreds. And if HE were here, he'd consume the English with fireballs from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse.

There were a few other quick montages of villagers making Wallace out to be a legendary, folklore hero. A lot of it was exaggeration. To me, that's what Ted Nolan's status in these parts had become. You'd hear soooooooo many stories about how his two years here were the greatest. Those years tend to take on a life of their own in the retelling.

As I said yesterday, if I got a dollar for every time I heard "The Sabres should bring back Nolan!" or "This team lacks compete, Nolan's teams would have buried them!" I'd have enough money to buy the Sabres. That's not hyperbole. Them are the facts.

I can't think of another coach or player who has become so loved based on such a short period of time. How on earth did we get to this?

Taking over a mess

As a 15-year-old kid, I witnessed the Sabres getting demolished by the Flyers in a 5-game series, 3 games to 1. The Sabres had underachieved throughout a lockout shortened season and fans were in an uproar because they felt the team didn't have enough tough guys. The Flyers, who were big, bad motherfuckers, pounded the crap out of the Sabres. Just picture the reaction after Boston beat us up during the 2010 playoffs. That's exactly how I felt then.

While changes needed to be made, they mostly occurred because of financial constraints. The Knox brothers were losing tons of money with the franchise. They had spent a lot on payroll and were trying to get a new arena built. They were dealing with all the trials of a small market team, including not being able to sell expensive luxury suites.

The Sabres began slashing payroll with the trades of Alexander Mogilny, Dale Hawerchuk, and Doug Bodger. In return, the Sabres got prospects and picks. At this point, you know how I feel about prospects and picks so I was pretty devastated as a kid when these deals went down.

It was really the first time I had to go through a rebuilding and it was a bitter pill for me to swallow. Who the hell was Mike Peca? I want Mogilny! The guy who scored like 76 goals two years earlier and was his own human-highlight reel. What are we getting? A bunch of cheap kids for him? WTF!

And to top it off, the Sabres decided to bring in a minor league coach I had never heard of. I was pretty disenchanted with the direction of the franchise at that point and I think a lot of fans felt the same way. The Sabres weren't selling suffering, just all of their assets.

The 1st year (95-96)

I don't remember this team as well as I probably should. They were pretty crappy, and they didn't qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1987. The fans loved their hustle, respect, and loyalty to Ted Nolan, however. It was the most loveable losing team in Buffalo history. It was the type of team fans had always envisioned, a bunch of guys who just kicked the shit out the opposition. It was the real life version of Slap Shot.

You want to know why the Sabres employ guys like Andrew Peters, Brad May, and Rob Ray on broadcasts? It is because that season showed everyone how many fans could gravitate to tough guys even if they were lacking in talent. They stunk, but they grabbed the city by the heart just by showing their heart every night. People loved going down to the arena to see these guys drop their gloves and would laugh whenever their wit was quicker than their jab.

The turnaround (96-97)

Heading into this season, expectations were still pretty mild and the Sabres still had a bunch of no-names to play with Pat LaFontaine and Dominik Hasek. Fans seemed more thrilled with the new uniforms and arena than they were with the team. While their attitude was popular, they were still in the shadow of the '90s Bills. How do you take over the town from a team filled with future Hall of Famers that was only 3 years removed from going to their 4th Super Bowl?

By winning.

I really can't tell you what the difference was between the two teams Nolan coached. Hasek was still Hasek, but I think the younger guys like Peca and Matt Barnaby really came into their own in this second year. Even guys like Jason Dawe, Brian Holzinger, and Derek Plante combined to score 71 goals. In terms of popularity and driving fans crazy with their inconsistent play and being soft, the three of them were probably our version of Leino, Connolly and Stafford. So, it is pretty amazing they got 71 goals out of them.

The amazing part of their run to the division title was that they did it without LaFontaine who was dealing with concussion issues. It's hard to believe that the Sabres got as far as they did with Derek Plante being their leading scorer with 53 points.

Don't get me wrong, Hasek was a big part of it, but as @hustledouble astutely pointed out to me on Twitter, anyone who coaches Hasek is going to be called lucky for having one of the all-time greats.

I think you can easily make the case that Nolan is good with young kids. Just ask Barnaby, May, Peca, and Jay McKee. It is a cliche to say that a player would run over his own mother to play for a guy, but it was the truth with most of Nolan's players.  You can't ignore how many of those players will say until the day they die that Nolan was the best coach they ever had. I'm not sure you could get as many people on record to say that about Ruff.

Xs and Os

As I said yesterday, Nolan was known for his motivational skills, not the ability to do things like designing power plays. He likes his 2-way players who have a lot of grit and heart. I've joked how certain fans (above 40, callers to the Whiner Line) would rally around a team filled with 25 Patrick Kaletas. That's exactly the type of player Nolan liked then and that's why those Nolan teams were so popular. 

He was a part of developing 2-way guys like Barnaby, Peca, McKee, and Zhitnik. However, he doesn't exactly have a lot of young scorers on his resume. I mean, Derek Plante? Jason Dawe? Meh.

All in all, it may be too early to say that Nolan can't develop scorers. He's only coached four seasons in the NHL. Lindy Ruff was stereotyped as being a coach who couldn't coach offensively gifted players, but once he got Briere and Drury, he did just fine.

So while on the surface you can say Nolan doesn't have the scoring acumen that you might want in a coach, you also have to consider that his body of work isn't exactly extensive.

The feuds

We all know that reporters love to cover a team when there's drama. They don't give a shit about wins and losses, but they do care about having a great story to tell. I shit you not, that 96/97 season will live in infamy when it comes to dramatic stories. Hasek vs. Nolan, Nolan vs. Muckler, Rigas vs. Knox, Doug Moss vs. Larry Quinn, Kelley vs. Hasek.

There was SOOOOOOOOOO much crap written about it all. If Twitter has been around, the whole damn Internet infrastructure would have melted. Deadspin would have had the most hockey stories in their existence just based off the rumors and drama about this team. These feuds probably added to why Nolan couldn't get a job for almost 10 years after getting fired. He was viewed as someone who butted heads with his bosses and wouldn't exactly bow to authority.

The downfall

You were either a Hasek, Nolan, or Muckler guy. It became a triple threat match in which everyone had to pick one side. You couldn't side with two parties because they couldn't co-exist. When you played this game of power with a franchise, you win or you get fired. There's no middle ground.

I can tell you I wasn't a Muckler guy.

I wasn't exactly enamored with him because I felt the team wasn't really that talented and the stench from the previous disappointing years still lingered with me. I think Muckler was probably a little jealous that Nolan was getting all the credit while he was known as they guy who was selling off assets. Nolan was viewed as someone who was taking Muckler's chicken shit and turning it into chicken salad.

After Muckler was eliminated, I had to pick between Hasek and Nolan. The two were butting heads in large part because Nolan didn't have Hasek's back when everyone started questioning the groin injury he suffered against Ottawa in the playoffs.
There was also some other stuff prior to that that involved Hasek trashing the locker room after a practice when Nolan called him and a few other players out during the session (source: Rob Ray's book). I was really hoping that the two of them would be able to iron out their differences because I really liked Hasek.
I mean, he's Hasek. The greatest goalie who ever played in Buffalo. A guy who put the franchise on his back. And in the other corner, you had a guy that Buffalo fans viewed as the leader of this tough group of players. Why couldn't they just hug it out?
Instead, it was your typical star player not liking the direction of the coach and then ownership taking the side of the player. Hasek  pissed on Nolan's grave when he said he didn't want to play under him after the NHL Awards ceremony. Seriously, you shit on the guy in the press room after you both won awards? Amazing.
Because the Knox family was losing money the year before, they sold a decent percentage of their team to Adelphia/the Rigas family. A year later, the Rigas family did something like a hostile takeover. All right, I'm exaggerating. But they were able to largely push the Knoxes out. With the Knoxes out, Nolan probably lost his biggest ally. The Rigas family hired Darcy Regier to be their GM, and the rest was history. Darcy gave Nolan a low ball 1-year offer and he rejected it. Finished.
The backlash
What followed was a bunch of rallies with fans and players being livid. I'll always remember when Matt Barnaby told the press he wanted to take a run at Hasek during training camp. Think about that quote. That's how badly the players and fans were pissed off at Hasek, the greatest goalie in the world, just because he may have hammered the final nail in Ted's coffin.
I'll say this until I'm blue in the face, this saga was a black eye for Hasek and it ruined him for a lot of Sabres fans. Dom could have been the most beloved Sabre in history with the way he played, but some fans couldn't get over his part in this breakup. The groin issue and troubles getting along with teammates would rear their head any time fans/MSM got a whiff of treason or rumors from the locker room about discontent.
Hasek was considered a diva/turncoat because of this and for many, it would haunt him for the rest of his career.
They screwed Ted
Whether it was by Darcy, Rigas, Hasek, or Vince McMahon, there's no denying that Nolan got screwed. Based on his performance, he never should have gotten fired. No one gets fired after winning a division title and Coach of the Year, especially after being on the job for just two years. In essence, this became the Sabres version of the Bills firing Bill Polian after going to the Super Bowl for 3 straight years.
I was pissed off. I really didn't understand it at the time, and I think the majority of fans felt the same way. It was arguably the biggest screw job in Buffalo Sabres history.
I think that's part of the reason why his story gets retold with such heroic tones. Harvey Dent once said, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Well, Nolan's coaching career died with him being a hero. His coaching career death scene was just as powerful as his coaching career life.
It was a sad ending for a guy who deserved much better. Who the hell knows what would have happened if he and had Darcy reached an agreement. Maybe he would have been here just as long as Lindy was.
There were a lot fans back then acting like Lindy was the stepfather who shouldn't be sleeping with our mother (Sabres) and that our father (Nolan) got a raw deal. There was A LOT of "Lindy's record is only good because he inherited Nolan's teams" going around from 98-01.
On the Island
While I can recap Nolan's years in Buffalo like it was yesterday, for the life of me I don't remember Nolan's Islanders teams. We all know the Islanders have been an epic joke since the first lockout, but aside from last year, the only time the team made the playoffs in that time was under Nolan. During his first season there, the Islanders had five players who scored over 20 goals and a 40-goal scorer in Jason Blake. Keep in mind the Sabres that season had six 20-goal scorers, Vanek's 43 goals, and Briere/Drury with both over 30 goals. The Islanders were 14th in the NHL in goals scored.
That's a lot more scoring prowess than what he had in '97 with the Sabres.
Of course, it was during the dead puck era, but he does have experience coaching skilled guys beyond Derek Plante. The Islanders also only had two players who had over 100 penalty minutes, so, it isn't like they were fighting the world. Hell, Miro Satan was 6th on the team in penalty minutes and I don't remember him being a penalty magnet, do you?
Amazingly, the Islanders averaged 12.5 penalty minutes a game, ranking 8th fewest in the NHL. Keep in mind this was when they were calling a shit load of penalties after the lockout. Hmmmm.
As for the 07/08 season, the shit hit the fan in LI as injuries derailed the team. The Islanders had just two players go over 20 goals, but you can put some of the blame on them losing Jason Blake, Tom Poti, Victor Kozlov, and Ryan Smyth to free agency. The Islanders failed to make the playoffs and Nolan was canned in July of 2008.
Keep in mind, the GM who hired him (Neil Smith) only lasted six weeks and was fired and replaced by Garth Snow who inherited Nolan. So yeah, Snow and Nolan seemed like a shotgun wedding at best, hence the quick breakup.
The negatives
How on earth could I go from being a Ted Nolan guy to being less than thrilled about his return? Easy. His story got played out here. When you keep repeating the same story over and over and over again, the exaggerations become deafening and the nostalgia rings a bit more hollow.
Buffalo has always been a place that revels in its past. We love the good old days, the shitty jukebox music of the '90s, and zubaz pants. We hold onto it because when things get bad, we can always go back to a time when things put us at ease.
After a while, I tend to get a little numb to that. I want to make history, not bring it back from the past.
Besides the Nolan nostalgia being cheapened by message boards, goons, and Whiner Line callers, there's also the hockey part of it. That rock 'em, sock 'em hockey is on life support right now. I couldn't tell you how many fights those Nolan teams got into here.  Just venture to YouTube and you'll be able to pick about five Flyers/Sabres brawls within those two years and a bunch of others. The premeditated fights are being phased out today by the NHL and as a result that style won't work today.
On top of that, didn't we just spend about 6 weeks bitching about how the Sabres are filled with a bunch of goons and how embarrassed we are about dressing John Scott and Patrick Kaleta? How about the fact that the Sabres lead the league in fighting majors? Did that win us any hockey games?  So our solution is bringing in a guy who was the architect of a team that fought, scored a few goals, and had the greatest goalie ever? Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth aren't Hasek. Oh, and there's the not playing well with other employees (Muckler/Hasek/500 Rumors) that kind of works against him.
I'm hoping Ted has evolved since then and he's not just living on his reputation from '97 like a lot of fans are. And what will hopefully separate Nolan from Lindy and Rolston is that he's a players coach and guys were willing to go through a wall for him. His predecessors… I wouldn't exactly say the same for. Derek Roy run through a wall for Lindy? More like he'd take Lindy's head and bash it against a wall.
But then again, you are professional athletes, so do you really have to be that motivated to play to begin with?
Final word:
I'm pretty skeptical about Nolan's return, but at the same time, I'm happy he gets to rewrite his own history after being fucked out of a job the first time around. Hey, Hollywood loves a comeback and so do sports fans.
However, the characters and plot lines in this sequel are going to be vastly different. There won't be financial restraints or unsteady ownership. John Muckler and Dominik Hasek are long gone. Nolan has been resurrected as a hero once again, but the villains who may have added to his heroism have moved on.
It is quite possible that he may end up coaching long enough to become the villain if he doesn't turn things around.

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