on March 2, 2014 - 8:25 PM
, updated March 3, 2014 at 12:14 AM
Downtown in Dysfunction Junction, where Ted Nolan must feel like he’s in some kind of time warp back to 1997, the coach’s emotional state is telling far more of the truth than anything the Sabres are saying.
Nolan has been morose for several days, to the point of tears on more than one occasion. Steve Ott and Ryan Miller, two players he absolutely loved, were getting traded and pretty much everyone in hockey knew it. But nobody knew Nolan was shielding a much deeper secret.
Pat LaFontaine gave Nolan a second chance in Buffalo in November, a chance to have a final act in the wake of the circus that ensued here nearly 17 years ago.
Following practice Sunday morning, Nolan pretty much seemed like he was close to joining LaFontaine out the door. After three months of saying he wanted to be the Sabres coach on a permanent basis, Nolan would no longer make that commitment in the wake of LaFontaine’s stunning departure a few hours earlier.
“Right now is not about my contract,” Nolan said, his voice once again cracking and the tears starting to form in his eyes. “It’s about the situation that just happened. It’s about what transpired in this organization, what happened to a very dear friend and I will leave it at that.”
Hold that press release. I did Saturday night. The Sabres claim nothing cataclysmic happened, that LaFontaine simply resigned to return to his old job in the NHL office. Of course, if you believe that, I’ve got a multi-million dollar timeshare in Florida that I’ll be holed up in while covering the team’s road trip this week.
Team President Ted Black was steadfast again Sunday that LaFontaine was not fired, although multiple sources continue to say that’s the case.
Black says there’s no discord in the Buffalo front office. In LaFontaine’s eyes, there clearly was although it wasn’t about the Miller trade, which new general manager Tim Murray consummated a few days after LaFontaine was already gone.
It probably wasn’t about Nolan either. Murray’s feeling on the coach is pretty much this: We’ve got a deal on the table – one the team nearly announced on Tuesday – so you can take it or go coach in Latvia because no one else in the NHL will touch you if you turn this one down.
The fans want answers about LaFontaine and they’re not getting many. As usual, Terry Pegula was most notable for his absence. The Sabres’ owner loves the accolades and he was certainly front and center in bringing LaFontaine back to extinguish the Blue and Gold tire fire in November created by Darcy Regier.
But as soon as things go sour, like the firing of Lindy Ruff last year or the widely panned retention of Regier, Pegula takes the exit stage left and lets Black dutifully take the bullets. Unacceptable.
You want an answer? This is about clashes in style. There are open questions about LaFontaine’s ability to manage in the wake of his sudden departure eight years ago on Long Island that’s now coupled with this one.
LaFontaine, of course, dealt with concussions during his playing career. Now that he’s out the door, there’s talk of outbursts with staff and a lack of willingness on LaFontaine’s part for any sort of compromise.
“I don’t have any concern about Pat’s mental state,” said Black, who seem mortified by the questioning of it.
It’s all so hard to believe. Neither of our teams seem to have their act together, as subsets of the executive suite seem to be sparring with each other.
When it comes to the Sabres, all you really need to do is substitute “State College” or “Pittsburgh” for “Detroit” and you get where the influence of the franchise is coming from, just like the split going on with the Bills.
The key difference is Pegula’s cronies are here in the building and having direct, on-the-scene impact. Joe Battista, who carries the title of vice president of hockey-related businesses, is nothing more than a longtime Pegula buddy who has no business being around an NHL operation.
Nolan certainly seemed unhappy to get the word to pull Ott and Miller from the lineup from Battista. Murray said he was still on the phone working the trade and time was certainly a factor, as the game was less than an hour away.
But Battista has exactly zero NHL experience before this year. He spent the last 26 years at Penn State and was a longtime coach of its club program before facilitating Pegula’s $88 million donation for the university’s arena.
Battista is clearly here to help with the growth of HarborCenter. You can bet LaFontaine didn’t like how he was becoming a player on the NHL side of the business. Black said Battista’s role has not grown, but others will tell you it has.
Murray, remember, is still a rookie GM. You don’t send an NHL neophyte down to tell the head coach an hour before a game his captain and franchise goaltender have to sit because they’re traded. Bad optics for sure.
But other than that point, Murray was the star of Sunday’s news conference. You can’t believe much out of what comes out the Sabres lately, but you at least had to love Murray’s attitude.
There were a couple of times it seemed he was downright scowling while standing at the front of the room. His stone jaw had a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m standing here dealing with this. Let’s go. Get your questions done so I can go back and make more trades.”
Fair enough. Murray needs to get the Nolan situation ironed out, too. If LaFontaine really resigned, Nolan would have to simply understand. It would be career suicide not to. But if Nolan believes LaFontaine was wronged, as he clearly does, he may not work with this ownership group – even if that means he’s done in the NHL.
Murray is leaving that up to Nolan.
“I just want people that want to be here to be here,” Murray said. “If he wants to be here, I want him to be our coach.”
It all sounds so simple. But as we all know, nothing in Dysfunction Junction is ever that way.