Early last week, Ted Nolan answered the telephone and was greeted by a friendly voice from his past. It belonged to none other than Bob Boughner, the defenseman who came to epitomize the tough, overachieving teams Nolan coached when he was behind the bench for the Buffalo Sabres.
Boughner was a marginal player when he broke into the NHL with the Sabres a year after the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. He is now an 11-year veteran and a respected voice on the National Hockey League Players' Association executive bargaining committee. With the season swallowed by labor strife, it's been a rough year.
But if he was looking for sympathy, Boughner dialed the wrong number. He isn't going to get much compassion from Nolan considering all that happened since they were on the same team. After all, Nolan spent years trying to make ends meet while Boughner, thanks largely to Nolan, made enough money for a lifetime of luxury.
"I said, 'Bobby, get used to it. They locked me out for seven years. You've only been locked out for one year,' " Nolan said. "He chuckled a little bit. But I don't know if he thought it was funny."
Funny how time flies. Nolan is actually going on eight years since his unceremonious departure from the Sabres. He won the 1997 Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year after guiding the Sabres to their first division title in 16 seasons. He never again stepped behind an NHL bench.
Nolan returned to coaching last week when he was named coach and director of hockey operations of the Moncton (New Brunswick) Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He signed a one-year contract for far less money than he made in the NHL, but the terms of the deal mattered little.
He's back where he belongs after returning to his roots. Nolan made a name for himself after coaching Sault Ste. Marie to three consecutive Memorial Cup championship games. You know his story, how he climbed the coaching ladder and quickly, perhaps magically, turned around the Sabres in two years.
And then he disappeared.
"Anybody that played for him is happy that he's finally getting back into the game and getting an opportunity," former Sabres winger Rob Ray said. "He definitely paid his dues. He deserves the opportunity. You go from being coach of the year to being totally out of work for eight years? There had to be something wrong there."
Did things his way
What exactly happened, why he was without a team for so long, nobody knows for sure. Time has clouded memories. Fact has been intertwined with fiction. This much is certain: Nolan persevered. One could argue his pride and stubbornness obstructed common sense, but he stayed true to his principles and ultimately did things his way.
To call Nolan a survivor would suggest he stood along the side of Queen Elizabeth Way near his home in St. Catharines, Ont., holding a sign reading, "Will Coach For Food." Nothing could be further from the truth. Nolan built a successful life away from the ice and didn't need coaching. Looking back, no matter how many times he sought another job, he was disenchanted with the NHL.
"I just lost my desire," he said. "The situation in Buffalo took its toll on me personally, emotionally, psychologically. One thing I worked on my entire life was my integrity and the person I am outside of hockey. Who cares if you win or lose? If you lose, you're going to get fired, anyway. That other stuff really hurt."
That other stuff was rumor and innuendo, some of which bordered on absurd. Nolan fell victim after he, former General Manager John Muckler and then-President Larry Quinn staged a bitter feud. All-world goalie Dominik Hasek, who despised Nolan, joined the fray and used his power. Hasek was the only man standing in the end.
Tagged as 'GM-killer'
In no time, Nolan was tagged as a GM-killer who was difficult to work with. He and Muckler have since said they could have settled their differences. Quinn said he would have no problem hiring Nolan if a general manager wanted him and, in fact, recommended Nolan three times for other jobs.
For whatever reason, GMs weren't exactly beating down the door for the former coach of the year. The longer he stayed out of hockey, the harder it became for GMs to justify hiring him.
"I would love to see Teddy coaching again in the NHL," Quinn said. "I think he's got everything it takes. He's an inspiring guy. He's got a good sense for the game. I think he will be successful. There's no doubt in my mind."
"He should have been coaching all along," former Sabres winger Matthew Barnaby said. "Anyone close to him feels like he was (cheated). Do I think it was a classic blackball? I have no idea. I think general managers were afraid. The rumors were he went above the GM. Maybe I'm naive, but I think he got a reputation that wasn't warranted."
Buffalo won the division in '97 with Derek Plante and Brian Holzinger as its leading scorers, evidence that Hasek was a great goaltender and Nolan was a solid coach. The Sabres had nowhere near the talent most teams had, but they finished with a 40-30-12 record despite losing eight of their final 11 games.
"The thing I remember (most) about Teddy is the effect he had on other people," former Sabres captain Michael Peca said. "He was able to get the most out of him because he was honest. People said they loved watching us because we were the hardest-working team in the league. Ted Nolan epitomized that."
The Sabres lost in the second round of the playoffs after Hasek refused to play, citing an injured knee. Others, including May and Barnaby, were convinced he quit on Nolan. Two months later, Nolan was gone.
Rejected Tampa Bay offer
Muckler was fired. New GM Darcy Regier offered Nolan a one-year contract, saying he wanted to get to know his coach. It was immediately rejected. Regier then offered inexperienced coach Lindy Ruff a three-year deal. Ruff has the most victories in team history. Muckler is managing the Senators. Quinn is back as managing partner of the Sabres.
Tampa Bay offered him a job, but he turned it down because his family wanted to stay in Canada. Nolan was convinced he would get a job with the New York Islanders in 2001 and was in tears after they hired Peter Laviolette. He once suggested he would ride horseback to Calgary if the Flames hired him. Instead, they hired Darryl Sutter.
Everything could have been avoided had Nolan accepted the one-year deal from the Sabres. If it didn't work out, many believe, he would have landed another NHL job. Nolan said he has no regrets about his decision because it was based on principle. But he still doesn't understand why it happened.
"To this day, how the whole thing came down, I'm still flabbergasted," Nolan said. "You learn from it and move on, but hopefully you never have to go through that experience again. That's in the past. I'm back and looking forward. I'm rejuvenated."
Nolan has been living in St. Catharines with his family while working for the Assembly of First Nations. He established the Ted Nolan Foundation, which works with Native kids emphasizing the importance of health, education and preventing substance abuse. He makes extra money as a motivational speaker.
His older son, Brandon, played for the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League this season. His younger son, Jordan, could be selected in the Ontario Hockey League draft next weekend. He worked with both sons' teams as they were growing up, which helped reignite his love for coaching.
Perhaps fittingly, as the lockout continues, Nolan could be coaching while 30 others with the same title in the NHL will be on the sidelines. They shouldn't expect much sympathy from Nolan. Not for at least another five years, anyway.
"It's a tough world out here, getting work and trying to find work. They ought to count their lucky stars for how fortunate they really are," Nolan said. "Certain parts of the past few years, I thought maybe my coaching career was over. You think about what happened. You cherish all the things you went through, the people you meet, the places you go and all the things you get from hockey. All of a sudden, here you are again."