Sandra Nolan tried to brace herself when her husband gave her the news from Latvia, but she failed miserably. She’s a kind and classy woman with a gentle touch, a mother of two boys who rarely cursed. She was the voice of the Nolan house, and she raised her sons to watch their language and treat others with respect.
Everybody has their moments, of course. They usually come when something catches us completely off guard. She heard Ted say something about “coaching” and “Buffalo” in the same sentence, enough to break through the filter between her brain and tongue. The whole thing seems like a blur. She was stunned.
It just, you know, came out.
“I swore, and I’m not a swearer,” she said with a laugh. “You don’t want to hear the word. It was the big one.”
Yep, she dropped the F-bomb.
“I never heard her say that before,” Ted Nolan said.
It was strategically placed within “you gotta be kidding me,” which pretty much summed up the reaction of many in the legion of Sabres fans. The mere thought of Nolan coaching the Sabres again was difficult for anyone to fathom, let alone the woman who never left his side after so many others inexplicably abandoned him.
After hearing the news and getting past the initial shock, she hung up the phone and bawled like a baby. She cried for five minutes in their empty home in Garden River First Nation, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. She understood that, some 4,000 miles away in Latvia, the strongest man she ever knew was doing the same.
“There were tears overseas and tears in Northern Ontario,” Nolan said Thursday after his second practice since being named Sabres interim coach. “They were tears of joy, especially coming here. If it happened in some other city, the emotion wouldn’t be as high. I loved coaching here back when I did. I never lost the spirit of Buffalo.”
You need to understand Nolan to fully appreciate the journey back, how a wrong was righted more than 16 years later. Nolan never should have been sent on his way in 1997 after he was insulted by, and quickly rejected, a one-year contract offer. He had other jobs and built a happy and successful life, but he was never truly whole again.
Nolan didn’t even realize as much until after he was hired Wednesday how much it affected him. He could have coached in several cities, or maybe won a Stanley Cup somewhere, but he never would have been completely content without having another crack in Buffalo. His return provided something he never expected.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” he said. “It was one of those things, one of those stamps, that now your soul can rest. Now you enjoy what you’re doing and get back to what you love to do. You do it with more desire and more passion than you did in the past because you have more maturity and experience.”
Nolan had effectively pushed his exit from Buffalo in 1997 to the side, rationalized that it wasn’t meant to be, forgave the people responsible and concluded that life wasn’t always fair. He spent more than 16 humbling years making himself a better person, a better father, a stronger leader and, in turn, a better coach.
He looks and carries himself much the same since he last stood behind the Buffalo bench and watched the Sabres get knocked out of the playoffs. He returns tonight against the Maple Leafs with the same enthusiasm but more perspective. His life has changed, which means it improved. That message should not get lost.
“Everybody changes,” Nolan said. “I’m not the same guy I was 20 years ago, and I’m sure you’re not, either. We have to change with the times when we’re here. The one thing that hasn’t changed is what it takes to win.
“It has not changed since the 1940s or ’50s or ’60s or 2013. What it takes to win is having a certain compete level that you have to do. You have to do certain things that other people don’t want to do. And that’s why winning is so tough.”
Ah, yes, Ted Nolan is back.
He’s a rarity in that Sabres fans would pay just to see him coach, to watch him get more out of players than they ever imagined with a simple, direct message. His thick backbone and honest approach draws people near. He’s unwavering in his beliefs and his loyalty. He has a knack for stirring the masses.
And he’s a gifted motivator.
Heck, by the time Nolan was finished talking Thursday, I was ready to break down the door and establish a forecheck in the media room. That’s the effect he can have on people. It’s precisely what the Sabres and their collection of young players needed as they plow forward through a difficult season.
It was obvious during an upbeat practice Thursday morning and in the dressing room afterward. His players were optimistic and excited. There was a sense the shackles had been removed and they were finally free, that Nolan and Pat LaFontaine would work with them after feeling as if upper management worked against them.
I’m not going to roll into carving Darcy Regier. It’s not worth my time or yours, not to mention the space in the newspaper. I will say that several players were thrilled Thursday that he and Ron Rolston were gone. There was an unmistakable buzz in the dressing room that had been absent for many, many years.
“If it happened somewhere else, it would have been OK,” Nolan said. “To have it happen here is great. This time is totally different. I had some dark moments, I really did, when I got let go from here. I might have lost my job. I may not have coached. I never lost who I am as a person, as a man.”
Nolan isn’t a miracle worker. He’s not going to magically teach teenage players how to beat grown men. But already he has wrapped his arms around his players and showed them he’s with them. He’s going to pull whatever he can from whomever he can. If he can get a fraction more out of each player, the Sabres will become a better team.
It will be interesting to see how much he can help Drew Stafford, for example. Stafford is loaded with ability but has largely underachieved. He spent years playing scared, fearful that one mistake would lead to a benching. He’s the kind of player who could thrive if unleashed by Nolan, a coach who understands the power of persuasion.
It’s happened in the past.
Most of his players are too young to remember. Anybody who recalls Nolan’s teams from the last year at Memorial Auditorium and the first year at Crossroads Arena – people who watched LaFontaine lead the Sabres in scoring one year and Derek Plante the next – knows Buffalo will be ready to play. The outcome is secondary.
At least there will be electricity flowing through First Niagara Center, generated by a simple move that was a long time coming. Toronto being in town, after all that happened in the preseason, will make the atmosphere that much better. Years from now, having Nolan and LaFontaine together again will make the franchise that much better.