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?
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.
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.
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.