Ted Nolan stepped onto the ice at First Niagara Center as the coach of the Buffalo Sabres for the first time since 1997.
Nolan was named interim head coach Wednesday morning and joined his new players on the ice for practice. The assistant coaches ran the drills and Nolan opted to use most of the time to talk to the players and start the process of getting to know them.
“They were very engaging. I talked to a few guys on the ice and they didn’t hold back,” Nolan said. “Some of them maybe went on a little longer than they maybe should’ve, but that’s what we want. We want open communication here. We want to find to out where the problems are and being truthful is the best way to do that.”
Nolan coached a Sabres team in the late ’90s that became known as “The Hardest Working Team In Hockey.” In his initial meeting with the team after practice, he stressed that message.
“He’s just more concerned about guys doing the work. I think he made that pretty apparent,” Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said.
Nolan re-joins the Sabres after coaching the team to a combined 73-72-19 record in the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons. He won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach in that second season, which included the team winning a Northeast Division title.
Nolan later coached the the New York Islanders from 2006 to 2008, going 74-68-21. He’s also currently the coach for the Latvian national team and will be behind their bench during the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia in February.
“I’m a straight-forward type of guy as I mentioned to the team here a few minutes ago. The only thing I ask is that you compete,” Nolan said. “Some guys play 25 minutes, some guys play three minutes. To work for three minutes, that’s not asking too much. Work for 24 minutes, that’s not asking for much. Some people have to work seven days a week, 14 hours a day. So that’s work. What we’re going to ask these guys to do is compete for the time you’re on the ice.”
Sabres captain Steve Ott said he received many text messages from players around the League praising Nolan’s character and coaching style.
“If that gives any motivation for the guys in this room, it’s you want to go through the wall for your coach and he’s one of those guys,” Ott said.
Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, who re-joined the organization as well on Wednesday as President of Hockey Operations, hired Nolan because he felt his former coach was the best person for the job at hand.
“There’s nobody I know better who can work in a locker room and bring a group of players together – and I’ve seen it firsthand – than Ted Nolan,” LaFontaine said.
LaFontaine and Nolan take over for general manager Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston, respectively, who were fired Tuesday night. LaFontaine said he will look to hire a new general manager at the end of the season and will work with assistant general manager Kevin Devine in the meantime. The 2013-14 season was Regier’s 17th year with the organization.
Miller, who was drafted by Regier in 1999, said he was surprised to wake up to the news Wednesday morning that the organization had made changes.
“You do feel bad for Darcy and Ron. You don’t like to see people losing their job, but I have a lot of respect for Darcy,” he said. “He’s obviously believed in me over the course of my career, so I wish him the best. And hopefully this is a situation for the Sabres as an organization to kind of reset a little bit. Darcy’s been here a long time and maybe it’s time for a little bit different perspective and some other kind of influence coming in.”
The Sabres look to build off a 3-2 shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday with a home-and-home series against the Toronto Maple Leafs this weekend. The two teams meet for the first time this regular season in Buffalo on Friday.
“We’re going to be working. Guys are going to have to be earning things around here,” Ott said. “From a veteran guy to a young guy, everything’s going to be earned. You earn your ice time. You go and you put your work boots on and you get things done. And that’s something that creates accountability right from the get-go.”
The Sabres look to claw their way back from the bottom of the standings. One thing the team can control is how hard they work.
“You can have all the talent you want, if you don’t compete, it doesn’t make any difference,” Nolan said. “That’s what I [said] to the team. I said, ‘We’re not going to promise if we compete, we’re going to start winning. That has nothing to do with that. But if we compete, it gives us a chance to win. Without that, it doesn’t work.'
“…When you’re losing more than you’re winning, it leads to frustration and you don’t feel good about coming to the rink. We want the guys to feel good about coming here and working on their craft and competing. When you compete, it’s a lot of fun. When you go in and you hit somebody and you’re battling for the puck, that’s what we’re in. We’re in a very competitive sport and you’ve gotta be competitive with it.”