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NHL coach of the year out on his ear (Ted Nolan).

It's not too often that a person is told he is absolutely the best in his field and then finds himself out job-hunting shortly afterwards.

But that's exactly the situation Ted Nolan finds he's in.

During the National Hockey League's awards night held in Toronto on June 19, Nolan, having just completed his second season as the bench boss of the Buffalo Sabres, was named coach of the year.

But less than two weeks later, Nolan and the Sabres parted company. After a lot of very public speculation about his future with the club, the best coach in the league was offered a one-year contract extension by the team's newly-appointed general manager Darcy Regier.

Regier replaced John Muckler, a man with whom coach Nolan had a sometimes stormy relationship.

The offer of a one-year contract didn't satisfy Nolan, who was seeking the security of a three-year deal. The former Detroit Red Wing and Pittsburgh Penguin player who went on to an outstanding Major Junior coaching career with the Soo Greyhounds before making the jump to the big-league coaching ranks, found Regier's offer unsatisfactory, especially considering his accomplishments this past season.

At the start of the 1996-97 campaign, hockey insiders felt the Sabres would be a middle-of-the-pack, perhaps sub-500 team. But with Nolan providing the leadership and Dominik Hasek providing world-class goaltending, the Sabres finished on top of their division with a 40-30-12 record.

Dubbed the hardest working team in hockey, the Sabres' 92 points was good for sixth overall in the league standings. That's a dramatic improvement from the previous season when Buffalo finished 20th overall with a 33-42-7 mark.

Nolan, a 39-year-old Ojibway man from the Garden River reserve near Sault Sainte Marie, Ont., was pleasantly surprised when he heard his name announced as the coach of the year.

Members of the NHL Professional Hockey Writers' Association voted on the award. Nolan beat out a pair of other nominees, Ken Hitchcock of the Dallas Stars and Jacques Martin of the Ottawa Senators.

"Being in the league for two years and then all of sudden you get an certainly was well appreciated," said Nolan, who had also served as an assistant coach with the Hartford Whalers during the 1994-95 season.

Words were hard to come by for Nolan though, during his acceptance speech. Following some quick thank yous, Nolan was visibly shaken and it appeared a thunder-shower of tears was fast approaching. Then he quickly left the stage.

At the NHL Entry Draft two days later in Pittsburgh, Nolan elaborated on how he felt during the awards evening.

"I thought it was a very emotional night," he said. "A lot of players were thanking their families. I lost both my parents a few years ago and I guess I started thinking about them and how they would react in a situation like this. They weren't there. I wish they were there. Sometimes the emotions get the better of you. And they got the better of me that time."

Though the awards night was intended to celebrate accomplishments from the past hockey season, there was a somber tone to this year's affair. That's because the majority of people who came on stage were offering their best wishes to Detroit Red Wings' defenceman Vladimir Konstantinov and massage therapist Sergei Mnatsakanov, who were in serious condition following an auto accident earlier in the month.

Besides the obvious self-satisfaction, Nolan was pleased that his award will also have a significant bearing on other people.

"I think it will be a great sign, especially for the Native youth," he said. "Being born and raised on a Native reserve in northern Ontario, not too many people came around to visit us. We always thought it was for other people to achieve things like this. To be in a position like this in the best league in the world and to be classified as the best coach for this year, I think it's quite an honor and inspiration for the Native youth or youth in general.

"It proves it doesn't matter where you come from or what material things you have or whatever you want in life that you can achieve things. So hopefully, it's an inspiration for all other people."

Even before becoming an NHL coach, Nolan was a role model for Aboriginal people. During an eight-season (1978-86) pro career, Nolan, who played defence, suited up for both Detroit and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In 78 NHL games, he had 22 points (six goals, 16 assists.) He also had stints in the minor leagues with teams in Kansas City, Adirondack, Rochester and Baltimore.

Nolan also deserves another award just for finishing off the past year in Buffalo. From the start of the season he had an ongoing feud with the club's general manager John Muckler, a rift which reportedly began when the GM did not give Nolan a contract extension following his first year in Buffalo. Muckler was fired at the conclusion of the season.

Nolan and Sabres' star goaltender Dominik Hasek, who won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player this season, also had their differences. Sources close to the team say Hasek was a Muckler supporter. The goaltending standout made it clear during the off-season that he was not interested in playing for Nolan again.

Nolan said considering the off-ice distractions which surrounded him, winning coach-of-the-year honors was even more meaningful.

"It certainly does mean more," he said. "It's tough breaking into this league and being successful in this league. With all the other stuff that happened, it's nice to get it."

As of mid-July Nolan was still looking for a big league hockey job. He told Windspeaker that he recently hired agent Robin Burns to help him in the search. Burns is the cousin of newly-hired Boston Bruin coach Pat Burns (formerly of the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs.)

"The problem is I was let go so late that all the jobs were filled, but Robin will beat the bushes for me," he said.

If no big-league job materializes by the time training camps open, Nolan will take it easy and wait for a call. He said he wouldn't consider a minor league or Major Junior position.

"I've proved I can coach in the National Hockey League and that's what I'm looking to do," he said.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Laskaris, Sam
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Aug 1, 1997
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