Former NHL player and coach Ted Nolan has never been one to shrink away from a challenge.
Hired a year ago to turn around the sagging fortunes of Latvia's national hockey team, the one-time Jack Adams Award winner (in 1996-97 with the Buffalo Sabres) led the Latvians to a respectable 10th-place showing at the 2012 IIHF World Championship.
Earlier this week, the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation extended Nolan's contract for an additional year and presented him with an even more important mission: Win the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament next February on home ice to earn a spot in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
The qualification tournament will be held in Latvia's capital city of Riga from Feb. 7-10, 2013. Apart from the host nation, the field of teams competing for one Olympic spot will consist of Kazakhstan, France and the winner of a preceding prequalification tourney.
Although Latvia will be the favorite to win the round-robin tourney, the Kazakhs may have something to say about it. Because of the timing of the tournament, Nolan's team will not have Kaspars Daugavins or other national team members who play in North America.
If Nolan succeeds in winning the tournament, his contract will automatically be extended through the 2013-14 international season, regardless of what happens at the 2013 World Championship. Under the terms of Nolan's contract, he will also serve as a roster-selection and coaching-staff consultant for the Latvian Under-18 and Under-20 teams, but will not appear behind the bench.
Following a 13th-place finish at the 2011 World Championship, Team Latvia fired Olegs Znaroks as its coach after a five-year tenure. The Latvian Federation conducted an extensive search for a high-profile replacement -- which included a rejected offer to former Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan -- before signing Nolan to a one-year contract on Aug. 3, 2011. Prior to accepting the post with Latvia, Nolan had been working as the vice president of hockey operations for the AHL's Rochester Americans.
"We were looking for a neutral, authoritative coach with lots of experience and good hockey knowledge. This is exactly what we found with Ted Nolan," said Kirovs Lipmans, president of the Latvian Hockey Federation.
Hockey is a very popular spot in Latvia with widespread participation and a rabid fan following for the national team program. Nevertheless, Team Latvia has struggled in recent years.
Over the past five years, Latvia has dropped out of the top 10 in the IIHF's world rankings to settle into the 12th spot. A country that was at least a threat to reach the quarterfinals at the Worlds had seen the gap narrow the wrong way, gradually moving closer to the relegation candidates than to the serious medal contenders.
The new generation of Latvian talent has not measured up to the now-retired players who anchored the team for many years following Latvia's independence from the Soviet Union. The untimely death of key defenseman Karlis Skrastins in the plane crash last September that took the lives of the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team dealt an even steeper emotional blow to the Latvian hockey program.
Hiring Nolan, an outspoken coach with a reputation for being something of a maverick, involved some risk for both sides. The first North American coach to work with the Latvian hockey team since before World War II, there was a risk that Nolan's style would not mesh with his players, especially those who had never played outside Europe. For his part, Nolan admitted he was unfamiliar with most of the players he'd now be leading.
"It's kind of like putting a big jigsaw puzzle together for six or eight months and then all of a sudden you have competition," he told The Canadian Press at the time of his hiring.
In preparation for the 2012 World Championship, Nolan took several trips from his home in Canada to Latvia to meet with team officials and evaluate talent. He also talked with other North American coaches with experience coaching European national teams, such as Glen Hanlon and Curt Bennett, about what worked and didn't work for them. Primarily, however, Nolan relied on his own hockey knowledge and varied life experiences to bridge the gap.
"We were looking for a neutral, authoritative coach with lots of experience and good hockey knowledge. This is exactly what we found with Ted Nolan."
-- Kirovs Lipmans, president of the Latvian Hockey Federation.
It worked. Latvia proved to be an exceptionally pesky opponent even for the top teams at the 2012 Worlds. In a losing effort against eventual gold medalist Russia, Latvia held a 1-0 lead after the first period and trailed by only a single goal in the third until Evgeni Malkin broke the game open and the Russians went to win, 5-2. Likewise, Latvia held the Czech Republic to a 1-1 tie through the first 50 minutes of regulation, until closely spaced goals by Petr Nedved and Tomas Plekanec gave the Czechs a 3-1 win.
In the meantime, Latvia defeated Germany, 3-2. The Latvians also easily won the only tournament game in which they were the decided prematch favorite. In that game, Nolan's squad dismantled Italy, 5-0. The lone true disappointment for Latvia came against Denmark. The Latvians outshot the Danes, 35-28, but could not solve goaltender Frederik Andersen.
Latvia finished the tournament without scoring a goal in any of its final three games. While this was a disappointment to Nolan and his players, the team's 10th-place finish at the Worlds was satisfactory. It was sufficient to place Latvia ahead of a couple of more highly regarded teams, such as Switzerland and Germany.
"We worked hard and we had a chance to win more games," team captain Janis Sprukts said. "At the same time, I think we will get continue to get better."
The decision to retain Nolan was not unexpected. Now, the focus shifts to getting ready for the Olympic qualifiers. Apart from the tournament in Riga, two other Final Olympic Qualification tournaments will take place concurrently in Germany and in Denmark. Team Germany will compete against Austria, Italy and a qualifier in the former tourney, while Denmark will play Belarus, Slovenia and another qualifier in the latter.
Next spring, Nolan's team will take part in the Helsinki-based bracket of the 2013 World Championship. The Latvians' goal will again be to pick off a win against Germany, defeat France and/or Austria, and at least put in competitive performances against Russia, Finland, Slovakia and Team USA.