SPORTS

ANOTHER SHOT AT THE BIGS

After nine years in exile, Ted Nolan is rebuilding his coaching career

CHARLIE GILLIS May 22 2006
SPORTS

ANOTHER SHOT AT THE BIGS

After nine years in exile, Ted Nolan is rebuilding his coaching career

CHARLIE GILLIS May 22 2006

ANOTHER SHOT AT THE BIGS

SPORTS

After nine years in exile, Ted Nolan is rebuilding his coaching career

CHARLIE GILLIS

It is not an easy promise for Ted Nolan to make. If there’s no NHL coaching offer on the table next fall, the former Buffalo Sabres bench boss vows that he won’t take it personally. No talk of vendettas. No hints of racism. No more beefing about shadowy actors plotting to keep him out of the big league. “That’s over,” he says, referring to the cynical barbs with which he has greeted NHL hirings, on and off, since his acrimonious parting with the Sabres nine years ago. “If the National Hockey League comes calling, I’ll be the first to jump on a car or a plane or a horse. If it doesn’t, I’m not going to be miserable, sitting around waiting for a phone call. I’ve learned to be happy with what I have.”

What he has, ironically, may be just what it takes to release him from hockey purgatory, bringing an end to one of the game’s most unseemly subplots. Nolan, a 48-yearold Ojibway from northern Ontario’s Garden River First Nation, has been frozen out of the NHL since he refused a one-year contract offer from the Sabres back in 1997 With a fabulous season, a victorious playoff series and a Jack Adams Award for coach of the year under his belt in Buffalo already, he figured he was worth a better deal. And on paper he was right. But behind the scenes, he had clashed with his general manager, John Muckier, as well as the Sabres’ preening goaltender, Dominik Hasek—men whose stock in the league would soon skyrocket. Buffalo let Nolan go, and as team after team hired lesser candidates, speculation mounted that someone was pouring poison in the ears of clubs interested in him. Muckier, now general manager of the Ottawa Senators, denied the rumours, as did officials with the Sabres. But to anyone familiar with the league, it seemed clear he’d been blackballed.

Nolan, to his detriment, sank into bitterness. He griped to reporters as NHL jobs went by. He shrugged coyly when asked if he was a victim of racism. “I wasted the first two years waiting for a call that didn’t come,” he now says. “You begin to get depressed, always searching, waiting...” He salved the wounds by returning to his roots, teaching hockey to Aboriginal youngsters and launching a native scholarship foundation. But pride kept him from taking a job in the minor or junior leagues, where he had already put in his time. Finally, last summer he decided he’d had enough. When an offer arrived from Robert Irving, industrial scion and owner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Moncton Wildcats, he made his move.

There was much at stake: having spent the better part of a decade away from top-flight hockey, Nolan’s past accomplishments seemed like a dream. “I was nervous,” he says, “especially for those first few games.” He also had to contend with the notoriously tactless crowds on Quebec’s junior circuit. In Chicoutimi, fans mimed tomahawk chops, shouted racial slurs and aimed imaginary bows-andarrows at him from behind the bench. Team officials in Gatineau were forced to publicly apologize to him after playing war-chant music over their public address system.

In the end, though, he prevailed. The Wildcats finished their season with a league-best 52-15-3 record. This week, Moncton will host the Memorial Cup tournament, featuring the top junior teams from Quebec, Ontario and the West. Nolan credits his players and assistant coach, Danny Flynn, with the team’s performance. But his long-time allies never doubted him. “Teddy understands adversity and he understands commitment,” says Sherry Bassin, whose Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds won three straight Ontario Hockey League championships under Nolan’s direction. “If he detects that a player isn’t honestly commited, he won’t stand for it.”

It is a formula, you’d think, to tempt any NHL manager with an underperforming team: hockey’s prodigal son makes storybook return, adding to the league’s Aboriginal quotient which—with the emergence of 50-goal scorer and former Nolan protege Jonathan Cheechoo—is becoming one of its truly heartwarming narratives. The Vancouver Canucks could use a coach like Nolan. There may also be openings in New Jersey, Los Angeles and Long Island. What could possibly stand in his way?

HE SALVED HIS WOUNDS BY GOING BACK TO HIS ROOTS, TEACHING HOCKEY TO ABORIGINAL YOUTH

Only himself. Emotional, proud, defiant and tenacious, Nolan has always been a harder man to lead than he is to follow. These are the marks of a good hockey player. Under the right conditions, they are the makings of a great coach. If Nolan is able to swallow rejection after the kind of season he’s just coached, then maybe, just maybe, the time is right for his triumphant return.