BUFFALO -- Ted Nolan may not be a native Latvian, but without him Latvia's hockey team might not be in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He also may not have returned to the NHL were it not for his work with the Eastern European nation.
Three years after being removed as coach of the New York Islanders, Nolan was hired as coach of the Latvian national team on Aug. 3, 2011. At the time, Latvia was on the outside looking in for the 2014 Olympics and needed to win its way into the tournament. Nolan's task was to do his best to make that happen and turn the hockey program around.
"Coaching overseas wasn't something I ever planned on doing," Nolan said. "It was just a call. I got a call on a Wednesday night, I'll never forget it. 'Ted, are you interested in going to Latvia?' I said, 'Where is it?' They called me [back] on a Friday and I think on Monday morning I was on a plane going to Latvia."
Before rejoining the Buffalo Sabres, Ted Nolan rediscovered his love for coaching with the Latvian national team. (Photo: Bill Wippert/NHLI)
Nolan's impact on the program was immediate. To help fix things up, Nolan reached out to a pair of Latvian players who had lengthy careers in the NHL: Arturs Irbe and Sandis Ozolinsh.
Each player had been estranged from the Latvian program for nearly eight years and Irbe volunteered soon after speaking with Nolan. But it was the now 41-year-old Ozolinsh who saved the day.
"Right before the qualifying tournament last February, I got a call from Sandis Ozolinsh saying, 'Hey, I want to play,'" Nolan said. "It took us two years to get him to come back and sure enough, he came back. If he didn't come back in that tournament, I don't think we go to the Olympics. He meant that much to the team."
Latvia beat out Kazakhstan, France and Great Britain to earn a spot in Sochi. They did so in dramatic fashion after they earned a point in an overtime loss to France in the final game of the tournament to clinch a berth in the Olympics.
Though Latvia isn't expected to be a threat for a medal, Nolan doesn't have the team thinking that way. Before he was hired as interim coach of the Buffalo Sabres in November, he coached Latvia to a win and a shootout loss against Russia in a set of exhibition games to prepare for the Olympics.
Latvia hasn't defeated Russia since the 2003 World Championships.
"I'm a strong believer in the ordinary guy can do extraordinary things at the right moment," Nolan said. "We worked on it for the last two and a half years in Latvia. When I first got there, they kept telling me, 'We couldn't beat Russia, we couldn't beat Russia, we couldn't beat Russia.'
"Although we didn't play their No. 1 team, we beat their 'B' team just before I got this job here [in Buffalo]. That's where I was coming back from, we beat them 4-1 and they beat us in a shootout. So we're right there with them. I'm not saying we're as good as Russia, but right now I'm a strong believer in belief and if you work hard and you do the right things at the right time. Just look at 1980."
Nolan mentioning the United States' victory against the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid is his main example to show what happens when hard work beats talent. That sense of belief has already carried over to a pair of younger players on the team.
"You know, tournaments like that you never know what can happen," 20-year-old Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons said. "Your goalie gets hot or something, anything can happen. In Olympics, World Championships, World Juniors, you have to give everything you've got every game. It's more about passion than any systems or anything, so you've got to work your hardest."
Working hard is something Nolan has stressed with the Latvian team, as well as the Sabres this season. Staying focused on what's immediately ahead is another point he's stressed to his teams.
"I think we just have our own goals," said Syracuse Crunch goalie Kristers Gudlevskis, who may be the Latvia starter. "Just play each one, game by game, and concentrate on only one game and don't think so much about everything else. We’ll give everything for one game and then we'll see what it's going be in the end."
It's that mentality that got Latvia into the Olympics in the first place, and the success from that reinvigorated Nolan's passion for the game.
"It really got me to why I started coaching in the first place," Nolan said. "I didn't coach to get to the National Hockey League. I coach because I really loved assembling a team and putting it together and making each individual player better and collectively as a unit try to do something that all teams try to do, and that's try to win a championship.
"When I [won a Memorial Cup championship] in Sault Ste. Marie, I just loved it. I obviously haven't had that chance here in Buffalo and Long Island, but to have that absence and go back, I think [coaching] the Moncton Wildcats [of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League] instilled that in me. Working with a guy like [team president] Mr. [Robert] Irving in Moncton really kind of sparked it all over again. Then this Latvia situation occurred and it's exactly why I started coaching."
The Latvian team has adopted Nolan as one of its own. They've even gone so far as to give him his own Latvian name.
"It's all S's there," Nolan said with a laugh. "I walked over and they said, 'Hey, there's Teds Nolans.' It's kind of neat when you try to pick up some of the language they speak. It feels you care about their nation and who they are as a people."
Nolan has learned a bit of Latvian and has encouraged the team to speak their native language in the locker room. His desire to have the team grow as more than hockey players and get back to their roots as Latvian people has helped the team buy into what he's preaching.
"When we first took over, the first thing we really wanted to do was get the Latvian language involved with the team all over again," Nolan said. "Get the guys to do a little studying where they're from, who they are as a nation. They're very proud of who they are.
"It doesn't matter whether we play in Canada or the United States, we're going as Team Latvia and hopefully represent the country the best way we can. And you never know, the one thing with the Olympics is dreams come true and miracles happen."