On Wednesday, the Buffalo Sabres made a major organizational shakeup by firing GM Darcy Regier and head coach Ron Rolston, bringing aboard new president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine, and new interim bench boss Ted Nolan.
It’s the latter announcement that raised most eyebrows. Nolan, who hasn’t coached in the NHL since 2008, rose to prominence with the Sabres from 1995-97, capturing a Jack Adams award (at the tender age of 39) while leading the ’97 team to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
That’s not all Nolan is remembered for, though.
His departure from the Sabres organization was ugly, a public spat littered with allegations, feuds (most notably with Dominik Hasek) and bitterness that saw both Nolan and former GM John Muckler — who would be replaced by Regier, ironically enough — lose their jobs.
Here’s more on the ugliness, from Sports Illustrated (July ’97):
The Sabres, who won the Northeast Division last season, have decided to entrust their future to $4 million-a-year goaltender Dominik Hasek, the league’s most valuable player, instead of the NHL’s coach of the year, Ted Nolan. During the playoffs the volatile Hasek attacked a Buffalo columnist who questioned the severity of an injury that had kept him out of two postseason games (SI, May 5); Hasek later made it clear that he wanted Nolan out of town, saying he did not respect him. Nolan, whose contract expired on June 30, had the support of nearly every other Buffalo player, but management listened to Hasek. “I honestly don’t know what made Dom feel the way he does,” Nolan said last week. “I tried to treat everybody fairly, but as far as kissing up to players, I’m not one of those guys.”
General manager Darcy Regier, who was hired only last month, took a slap at Nolan when, at a June 26 press conference, he offered him just a one-year contract for an undisclosed amount. Nolan instantly rejected the offer, which was subsequently withdrawn. In the two days after the press conference, there were a pair of pro-Nolan rallies in Buffalo, each of which drew hundreds of fans. Jean Knox, widow of the franchise’s founder, Seymour Knox, attended one. “This never would have happened if Seymour were alive today,” she says of Buffalo’s failure to re-sign Nolan. “Ted Nolan would have a long-term contract.”
Nolan has no immediate job prospects. The Jack Adams Award as the top coach is a splendid line on a résumé, but there aren’t many NHL coaching opportunities available. Moreover, Nolan’s feud with former Sabres general manager John Muckler, whom team president Larry Quinn fired after the playoffs, might make potential employers queasy. “There could be that perception of me [as a G.M. killer],” the 39-year-old Nolan said, “but I’ve had a pretty good history of working with people.”
It appears Nolan was right about perceptions — despite winning the ’97 Jack Adams, it took him nearly 10 years to find another NHL gig before getting hired by the Islanders in 2006.
Despite this, it’s easy to see why LaFontaine opted to bring Nolan back into the fold. The two have a history of working together in Buffalo — in ’95-96, LaFontaine had one of his finest offensive campaigns, leading the Sabres with 40 goals and 91 points. What’s more, the 91-point campaign came after LaFontaine’s career was derailed by concussion issues and represented his last hurrah in Buffalo.
It’s worth noting that none of the Sabres regime from Nolan’s first tour remains. Regier is gone, ownership has changed and Hasek — while still a franchise legend — had his comeback effort rebuffed by the Sabres in June of 2012.