Ted Nolan won’t be spending his Saturday on Broadway but he will be under the bright lights for the second straight night with Pat LaFontaine as one of his new bosses. And it’s just about perfect.
The Sabres will be in Toronto tonight, playing in the revered Saturday slot on “Hockey Night in Canada.” And for the last three days, they’ve been one of the big stories in the NHL. Pretty hard to imagine that, given the way things have gone in Pegulaville this year.
It was one thing for Terry Pegula to give LaFontaine some keys to the ship. It was another thing entirely for LaFontaine to come up with the Nolan idea.
How did he execute it? Pretty amazing anecdote he shared Friday.
LaFontaine, naturally, has a lot of connections in the New York City area and he sheepishly admitted one of them is pretty good in coming up with hard-to-find show tickets.
Nolan was heading back from his work in Latvia with that nation’s national team to see his son, Jordan, in a game on Long Island. Then he was going to take his wife to “The Book of Mormon,” the highly acclaimed religious satire musical from the creators of the bawdy animated comedy “South Park.”
LaFontaine couldn’t get ahold of Nolan until Nolan landed in Germany; he gave him some good news and some bad news.
“I said, ‘Teddy, it doesn’t look like you’re going to be going to the show on Saturday,’ ” LaFontaine recalled. “He said, ‘Really?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t even think you’re going to be coming to New York.’ ”
At that point, Nolan was baffled. Why was LaFontaine calling him in Germany about show tickets – especially ones he couldn’t get?
“I said, ‘Well I think you’re going to be in Toronto on that Saturday night coaching the Buffalo Sabres,’ ” LaFontaine said. “There was just total silence.”
LaFontaine said Nolan got emotional. The coach is a heart-on-his-sleeve guy. We’ve already seen that a couple of times this week. He joked after Friday’s 3-1 win over the Leafs he would have a good celebratory cry when he left the press conference room.
It was LaFontaine’s idea to give Nolan this chance.
What a brilliant thought to right a wrong.
First impressions are just that. And any team usually plays a little better when a coach and/or GM is fired. But off one night – and I know it’s only one – what a difference.
The Sabres skated well. There was passion and purpose. Steve Ott was a pest again, and dived headlong late in the game to beat Dion Phaneuf to a puck and clear the zone on a penalty kill.
Christian Ehrhoff literally saved the day in the final 40 seconds, taking over for Ryan Miller and blocking what looked like a sure tying goal for James van Riemsdyk.
It all made them look like a Nolan team.
“We need more of that moving forward,” Ehrhoff said. “It can’t be just a one-night thing. We need some consistency and if we do that, we’ll have a chance in a lot of games. Competing is fun.”
The fans’ cheers were strong for Nolan. They even seemed a little louder when a video was played to welcome back LaFontaine and he was then shown sitting in a private box with Pegula. LaFontaine waved, the crowd got louder and the owner playfully tapped his new president of hockey operations on the back of the head.
The biggest press box cynics joked that was a better hit than most of the ones we saw the first 20 games under Ron Rolston.
Sabres players have been good soldiers, refusing to publicly bash a coach who was very worthy of getting crushed. As it turns out, they really needed to say nothing.
The way they’ve been hooting and skating in practice the last two days, they may as well have been singing bars of “Ding Dong, Darcy Junior is Dead.”
It carried into the game. You think you were jolted by the arrival of LaFontaine and Nolan? Imagine what went through minds in that locker room.
“It’s always going to be a little bit of a shock,” said veteran defensman Henrik Tallinder. “But when you hear it was Nolan and LaFontaine, that’s pretty remarkable. Those guys are heroes here. They can build this organization the right way.”
“It just seemed like this is right,” LaFontaine said. “This is what it’s supposed to be right now.”
There’s plenty of work ahead. I’m thinking Nikita Zadorov gets to play his final two games and is shipped back to junior. Nolan has already made a couple of references to London coach Dale Hunter, who would be a terrific mentor for the Sabres’ prized prospect.
Luke Adam is on fire in Rochester and deserves another chance now that the R&R show is done. I’d call up defenseman Brayden McNabb, too. You wonder if they’ll send Rasmus Ristolainen to the AHL to try to get him 20 minutes a night.
The big news is LaFontaine’s work on getting a new GM. He said that starts in earnest on Monday, once he gets some permissions from other teams about their employees and makes some trips to start interviewing. His first big decision – getting a real coach in here – has energized a franchise. More please.
My favorite statty point of the team’s sacrifice to start its new era? It comes from the Ehrhoff block – which was No. 16 on the night for Buffalo.
Same number the new president of hockey has hanging in the rafters. Spooky. And appropriate.