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Why the Sabres and Nolan Need Each Other


Two sides need to get a deal done, right now

We might never get to know the whole story and the entire truth as to what really went down in the Pat LaFontaine saga. Beleaguered Buffalo Sabres fans have watched the ceaseless front office drama unfold at the foot of Main Street across the span of almost two decades and five different ownerships. People here have had enough. Fans ask why can’t we just have a stable organization, talented managers, coaches, and players, and a team that we can rally around and hold hope for a Stanley Cup championship.

And that is why the Buffalo Sabres and their coach need to get to the table fast and make a deal. They need to calm the situation and telegraph to their fans, their organization, their players, and the hockey community at large that things are under control, and regain the confidence of the very people that matter.

Ted Nolan looked visibly shaken when he addressed the media this past Sunday, less than 24 hours after learning that his good friend and mentor Pat LaFontaine had resigned from the organization. He said the right things. He stated that his focus would be on the ice and his 22 players, and when pressed on whether he would be interested in staying on as the permanent head coach, he demurred.

Just hours later, general manager Tim Murray stepped up to the same podium. “We want him to come back. I don’t know what he’s thinking,” said Murray. Then he added, “I just want people to be here who want to be here. If he wants to be here I want him to be our coach…I’m not going to beg anybody to want to be here.”

The best thing that could have happened at this juncture is that the team hit the road. Nolan needed this time away from the office suites at First Niagara Center, to clear his head, to immerse himself onto in team practices, even maybe to enjoy some warmer weather, and come back home with a fresh perspective.

This is Nolan’s third stint as a coach in the National Hockey League. The first two times, with Buffalo and the New York Islanders, he got caught up in front office chaos and drama, and despite incredible on-ice accomplishments and the adulation of the fans, his tenures ended abruptly. Now he’s back behind the bench again, and in typical Nolan fashion, the team is playing better, they are fun to watch, there’s excitement around the team, and he is extracting gallons of lemonade from the lemons handed to him.

Nolan has a chance to be a head coach for the long haul if he stays. If he makes bad career decisions now and acts upon his emotions and departs, this in all likelihood will be his last chance to ever coach an NHL team in his lifetime.

For the Buffalo Sabres, the stakes are even more dire. Even before the latest chaos ensued, the team is in trouble with its fan base and its core of season ticket holders. The value of tickets has plunged along with the fortunes of the team, and it is questionable whether the team will be able to maintain its current level of 16,000 season tickets moving forward. There have been other clunkers this season—the heralded third jersey was a marketing fiasco, for example.

The one constant asset that the Sabres enjoy is the bond that their fan base and ticket-buying public has with Nolan. For those who were around from 1995 through 1997, the passion for “the hardest-working team in hockey” still resonates. It was one of the most exciting eras in this franchise’s history.

It’s easy to forget that in 1997—while dueling ownership groups were battling over shares in the team, the team president was having an affair with the marketing director, the head of the arena corporation was meddling in the hockey department, and the general manager was feuding with the coach—Nolan kept his ragtag players and all-world goaltender focused on the task on the ice. The team beat the odds and won the division, then went to the second round of the playoffs. Had things just remained the same, it would be reasonable to say that the Buffalo Sabres might already be boasting about “multiple Stanley Cups” from 1998 and 1999.

Nolan is the perfect fit for a team that is in rebuild mode, with a stable of young players, prospects, and new faces who will learn from their coach, whose message will resonate in the locker room.

Nolan does have his critics—some say he is too emotional. He is not regarded as an “Xs and Os” type of teacher. One of the constants on all the teams he has ever coached is an anemic power play.

But Buffalo needs Nolan and Nolan needs Buffalo. With the team coming home this weekend and the draft deadline past, hopefully cooler heads and sound reasoning will rule the day. And all sides will come to the logical conclusion that we all know: The appointment of Ted Nolan as permanent head coach of the Buffalo Sabres is a match made in Hockey Heaven,

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