on November 13, 2013 - 10:51 PM
, updated November 14, 2013 at 2:32 AM
The Buffalo Sabres were broken in nearly every way imaginable. They’d embraced a culture in which losing was acceptable. The once-unyielding bond between the team and its fans was giving way, made threadbare after 44 years because of embarrassing performances and differences in ideologies.
Things had gotten bad inside the organization, too, with upper management sending memos to team employees that urged them to keep their heads up as losses and dark clouds grew in number. The Sabres needed something more than words to lift spirits and restore hope.
Enter Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan, faces from a golden age who strolled back into First Niagara Center on Wednesday with smiles, tears, determination and inspiring messages. News of their return raced through Sabreland and brought instant joy to a miserable time in team history.
“I couldn’t be more excited and more proud to be here,” said LaFontaine, the Sabres’ new president of hockey operations. “I know this city. It’s one of the hardest-working, most-passionate cities and fans. I can promise you the hard work and passion that’s here, I’ll give that same effort in my new job and make sure from top to bottom we have that same feeling.”
LaFontaine takes over the hockey department from Darcy Regier, who was fired after 16 years as general manager. Owner Terry Pegula also relieved Ron Rolston of his coaching duties, with Nolan replacing the first-year coach on an interim basis.
“I don’t think I have enough words inside me to express how excited I really am,” said Nolan, who was named the NHL’s Coach of the Year in 1996-97, the last of his two seasons behind the Buffalo bench. “I may have left physically, but emotionally and spiritually, I never really left.”
The duo has long been beloved by fans for being passionate and hardworking, two traits that had disappeared at the foot of Jim Kelley Way. LaFontaine and Nolan are determined to bring them back.
“Hopefully, I can bring some credibility back into this organization,” Nolan said. “As I’ve always done, I’m going to give you everything I have. I’ll try not to let the people of Buffalo down. We’ll compete, we’ll make it exciting and we’ll make it someplace that people want to come and enjoy hockey games again.”
LaFontaine, whose jersey was retired to the rafters after a historic six-year run with the Sabres from 1991 to ’97, knows they won’t be able to turn around everything overnight. But the difference between LaFontaine saying “patience” and Regier saying “suffering” is immeasurable.
“I’m not going to lie,” LaFontaine said. “We’ve got a lot of work in front of us. We’re going to get to work starting today.
“I think if fans know there’s leadership and direction, and they know there’s good people in place and they start to see it happening on the ice and they see the product, they’re going to support it.”
LaFontaine felt the best way to make change happen on the ice was to put Nolan in charge of the dressing room. He coached “The Hardest-Working Team in Hockey” during his stint in Buffalo and turned a group of young players into a lovable, winning squad.
He and the Sabres parted ways after his Jack Adams Award-winning season, with Regier insulting Nolan by offering him a one-year deal. Nolan was out of the game for a decade before a two-year run with the New York Islanders. The 55-year-old has worked with various charities and is coach of the Latvian national team, which will compete in the 2014 Olympics.
“He’s been through a lot, and he’s changed a lot,” said Nolan’s son Jordan, who played against the Sabres on Tuesday as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. “He’s been looking to get back into this for a long time. This is his chance now, so he’s going to run with it.”
Ted Nolan earned admiration by coaching with emotion, and he choked up during the news conference while discussing the importance of his family.
“If I had a perfect crystal ball in front of me that I could pick one place that I would like to do it again, this is certainly the place that I would like to do it,” said Nolan, who attended Tuesday’s game and found it boring. “We’re in the entertainment business, and we have to entertain people. … The bottom line is to make sure we compete at a certain level and we make sure when the fans leave here they don’t feel cheated.”
The fans have felt cheated this season, with an increasing number choosing to stay away rather than use their tickets. Buffalo is just 4-15-1, including 1-8-1 at home, and would have struggled to maintain its renewal rate for season tickets.
Empty seats certainly influenced the moves, though Pegula said it just got to the point where change was needed.
“Being a people person, the first thing I believe you’ve got to do when you want to replace somebody is you’ve got to meet people you like, somebody you think is capable,” the owner said while nodding at LaFontaine. “He is a class individual, and he is going to add a lot of energy to our organization.”
One of LaFontaine’s first objectives is to find a general manager. The 48-year-old has a short list of candidates. The new GM will decide after the season whether to make Nolan a permanent coach or hire someone else.
“Somebody who I’m going to bring in is going to be smarter than I am in the hockey world,” LaFontaine said. “We’ll get the right people to fill in the holes, and that environment and the team will grow. Obviously, our vision and our dream is to get a championship-caliber team year after year after year.
“I think the fans have to understand that we’re going to get the team there. I appreciate their support and patience, and this is going in the right direction. We’re going to get there. I just can’t tell you when, but we’re going to get there.”