If you had asked Ted Nolan five years ago if he felt he had something to prove as a coach in the National Hockey League, he would have given an affirmative answer.
Some things change. And time has given Nolan different opportunities and a different perspective.
“I’m done proving myself,” Nolan said after his first practice as the Buffalo Sabres’ interim head coach Wednesday afternoon. “I just really want to do what I think I’m good at and I think I’m a fairly good coach. I want to make these players better. And if you make these players better, you’re going to make your team better. If you do that, you’ll make your organization better. My main thing is trying to get these players to be the best players they can be.”
To get the most out of this group of players, a group of veterans and teenagers with a horrible record and a horrible reputation, is no easy task. And Nolan understands the challenge in front of him. He saw it firsthand Tuesday night.
Nolan was in Buffalo to watch the Sabres beat the Los Angeles Kings in a shootout. His son, Jordan Nolan, is in his third NHL season with the Kings. And Ted Nolan, well, he’s not one to sugarcoat his feelings.
“I didn’t like the game last night,” Nolan said. “I thought it was ugly. I thought it was boring. But you get two points, but I didn’t like the game at all. We have to be better than that.”
Being better may not translate into wins immediately but Nolan seems bent on putting a team on the ice that competes. In his two previous seasons coaching the Sabres, from 1995 to ’97, Nolan’s teams were self-dubbed the “hardest-working team in hockey” and fans responded to the aggressive, blue-collar style.
The top priority for Nolan is work. And after the first brief meeting and short practice session, the players had already absorbed the message.
“We’re going to be working,” captain Steve Ott said. “That’s something that guys are going to have to be earning things around here. From a veteran guy to a young guy, everything is going to be earned. You earn your ice time. Go put your work boots on and you get things done. That’s something that creates accountability right from the get-go.”
Here’s how Nolan describes it:
“I’m a straightforward type of guy. The only thing I ask is that you compete. Some guys play 25 minutes, some play three minutes. To work for three minutes, that’s not asking too much. To work for 24, that’s not asking for much. Some people have to work seven days a week, 14 hours a day. That’s work. What we’re going to ask guys to do is compete for the time they’re on the ice.”
Nolan doesn’t promise that if the team starts working hard and competing each shift on the ice that a miraculous playoff run will ensue. However, it puts the team in a better position to win and, for the fans, it creates sporting entertainment value.
That sentiment may mean Patrick Kaleta returns to the Sabres from his exile to the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.
“I’m going to be looking at everything to get this team back on track where people can really enjoy what they’re watching,” Nolan said. “If he’s one of the guys that can help us do that, we’ll definitely look at that.”
Looking. Talking. Analyzing. Teaching. It’s part of the system that Nolan brings to the club. His first order of business is to understand the personnel that he’s been given to work with.
“That’s always been one of the things I pride myself on. I’ve got to know the personnel on this team,” Nolan said. “I’ve got to know what makes them tick. I’ve got to know who they are as people. Then once you find that out you can slot them into certain positions.”
Using his personnel to their best potential and demanding hard work are trademarks of Nolan’s coaching philosophy. But since being named the head coach for the national team of Latvia in August 2011, he’s added a different element to his approach, one that may expedite the development of the team’s younger players.
“Because of the language barrier you had to break it down even simpler,” Nolan said. “It’s like coaching pee-wee hockey again in a sense of explanation. You have to break it down. To me, there’s no better way to coach than to do that. Anybody can say we want you to work hard. But we’ve got to work smart. We can say we have to move the puck better but we have to teach the players how to move the puck better. I think I really became a better coach, coaching overseas.”