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Merry Christmas, Sabres Nation!

Team delivers early present to suffering fans

When the announcement came out early Wednesday morning, giving an hour’s notice to the media and the public for a “major press conference” at First Niagara Center, everyone knew. The Darcy Regier era was over.

What was the shocker, however, and had the entire city abuzz and Sabres Nation celebrating around the globe, were the two men who stepped out from behind the curtain at that press conference. Accompanied by owner Terry Pegula and president Ted Black were none other than Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan, two of the most beloved icons and revered figures in Sabres history.

“Last night I relieved Darcy Regier from his duties as Buffalo Sabres general manager and Ron Rolston as head coach,” said Pegula as he introduced the two men who many believe can lead Buffalo back to its good place in Hockey Heaven.

Pegula announced that LaFontaine would assume the new title of president of hockey operations while Nolan was named “interim head coach.” He admitted that he had been in discussions with LaFontaine for a while about the new direction for his team, but also stated that he met Ted Nolan in person for the very first time just this past Tuesday night.

Make no mistake, these two men come to Buffalo in a package deal, and for certain LaFontaine doesn’t take this job unless he could bring Ted Nolan along with him. LaFontaine was the team captain and on ice leader of Nolan’s “hardest working team in hockey” in the mid 1990s. The Sabres made an improbable run to the division championship and the second round of the playoffs in 1996-97, laying the foundation for the team’s subsequent run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1999.

Their blueprint for success has already unfolded on one stage. It was 2006, and the New York Islanders franchise was in shambles. Fans were tuning out their team in droves, and the team’s past glory as a four time Stanley Cup champion was just a fading memory.

Team owner Charles Wang held a series of “town meetings” with season ticket holders and stakeholders. He reached out to the community and the media.

The result was the hiring of LaFontaine as a senior advisor, and Nolan as the new head coach, along with the appointment of Neil Smith as the Islanders general manager.

Drama and chaos followed almost immediately. Smith was soon let go as the general manager, replaced by goaltender Garth Snow, who retired as a player to move to the front office. Smith’s sacking spelled the end of LaFontaine’s stint with the team, and he resigned in disgust the same day as the firing went down.

Snow then made several key free agent acquisitions, notably defensemen Tom Poti and Brendan Witt, but also orchestrated one of the most disastrous contracts in team history, signing goaltender Rick DiPietro to a 15-year contract worth $67.5 million.

Nobody expected the Islanders to go anywhere that season, but it was Nolan who was behind that bench, and he and his players confounded the critics by making an improbable run to the eighth seed of the conference and a playoff berth. They then lost to the Sabres in the first round. With Snow wanting to bring his own people in, Nolan was dismissed from his job with the Islanders after the following season.

LaFontaine was asked what parallels could be drawn between the Islanders situation in 2006 and the situation facing the Sabres now. Choosing his words judiciously, LaFontaine replied, “The difference is from the top and the direction we’re going in that I have their full support. My job is to make sure from top to bottom that everyone’s on board and we have the right people so…it’s different. But it was a great experience.”

Speculation is already rampant as to who the new general manager will be, and how that will affect Nolan’s status as the interim coach, and whether yet another Sabres coaching change will be in the offing in the not-too-distant future. Not going to happen.

LaFontaine will work with assistant general manager Ken Devine on the day to day operations while continuing to search for a permanent general manager. “I have a short list to work off of” is all that LaFontaine would say.

The line here? Forget about former Sabres players and some of the usual suspects being bandied about. Expect Neil Smith, who has a Stanley Cup ring and two President Cup trophies from his tenure with the New York Rangers, to step down from the broadcast booth and take the reins as the new Buffalo Sabres general manager. If it happens, you read it here first.

Taro Sez…

• LaFontaine always used to brag that he never had to report to the DMV to change license plates, having played and done front office stints for the Sabres, New York Rangers and New York Islanders. That no plate change streak continues.

• Also in attendance, Nolan’s wife Sandra and sons Brandon and Jordan, both pro hockey players. “Our hearts never really left Buffalo,” said a beaming Sandra.

“I’m just glad we’re done with LA this season so I don’t have to coach against my son,” quipped Ted. Jordan Nolan plays for the Los Angeles Kings and played here in Buffalo this past Tuesday.

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