DALLAS — One week ago, the Sabres were planning a news conference to announce an extension of Ted Nolan’s contract. After a wild weekend that saw Pat LaFontaine resign as president of hockey operations, it’s not clear whether Nolan even wants to stay in Buffalo past this season.
The future of the interim coach and the history of LaFontaine remained uncertain Sunday as the Sabres got back to work. Nolan conducted practice in First Niagara Center before flying to Dallas for tonight’s game, but the emotional man did so with LaFontaine’s departure weighing heavily.
“I don’t even want to think about it, to tell you the truth. It’s that tough,” Nolan said. “It hasn’t just been the last two months with Patty. I formed that relationship with him as a player back last time I was coaching. Everybody knows what kind man Patty is. They don’t come much better than him.”
Nolan and LaFontaine have been friends and allies since 1995, and LaFontaine opened the door for Nolan to return to Buffalo in November. It appears Nolan’s job status had nothing to do with LaFontaine’s shocking exit because the coach was safe.
The Sabres were set to announce last Tuesday that Nolan was staying in town with a multiyear contract, The News has learned. The news conference never took place, possibly because LaFontaine’s shaky situation became known to Nolan. The optimistic coach was outwardly downcast during the week.
“We did talk about contract,” Nolan said. “Right now is not about my contract. It’s about the situation that just happened. It’s about what transpired in this organization, what happened to a very dear friend.
“I have to put my personal situation behind right now and really concentrate on those 22 guys here. That was the main reason I got here was to try to turn things around and coach the Buffalo Sabres. Right now especially I’m going to really concentrate on that because we traded our franchise player, we traded our captain. It’s tough enough as it is. All of a sudden a situation happens with Patty.
“I’ve just got to put how I’m feeling away to the side and deal with the team.”
General Manager Tim Murray, who appeared with Sabres President Ted Black at an afternoon news conference, said he wants Nolan back but didn’t know what the coach was thinking.
“If he wants to be here, I want him to be our coach,” Murray said. “I can’t speculate whether he does or not, and I’m not going to beg anybody to come and work here. I want people that want to be here. I want players that want to be here. We want Teddy to be our coach going forward.”
Nolan has repeatedly said coaching in Buffalo is his dream job, so not agreeing to an extension clearly has to do with LaFontaine. The Hall of Famer did not respond to messages seeking comment for the second straight day.
LaFontaine’s friends continued to express shock and search for answers regarding his exit. People inside and outside Buffalo who had talked with him recently say he expressed a genuine love for the job and was excited about the team’s future.
Now he’s gone.
“Pat LaFontaine resigned,” Black replied when asked if LaFontaine quit or was fired. “I can tell you there was no discord.”
Sources continue to say LaFontaine was let go, so did the fan favorite resign in order to avoid being fired? Black deflected the question.
“As per comments at the press conference and as was in the release yesterday, Pat resigned,” Black said in an email Sunday evening.
Though LaFontaine is out, his fingerprints remain.
“In the short time that I’ve known Pat, he’s done a lot for me on and off the ice as far as putting things in a new perspective and treating me with respect,” right wing Drew Stafford said. “It was a good experience playing under him. It’s just weird we’re already talking about it as a thing of the past.
“You go seven, eight years of steady, really nothing happening until maybe like a deadline deal or something, then the last 24, 48 hours – I’ve never really seen anything like it. It’s pretty crazy.”
During LaFontaine’s four months on the job, he hired Murray, Nolan and adviser Craig Patrick.
“We appreciate what he’s done,” said Black, who added there will not be another president of hockey operations. “The position was created when Pat came in. As of right now, there’s no intention to continue that position at all. Basically, the responsibilities will be assumed in the GM position with Tim.”
Black understands why fans are upset and dismayed with the appearance of dysfunction inside the franchise. A source close to ownership says Terry Pegula is aware of the image problem but wants to look toward the future and believes winning will make people forget the angst.
The problem with that is the Sabres are a long way from winning. Murray will continue to try and change that this week. He moved goaltender Ryan Miller and captain Steve Ott on Friday, and more transactions are expected before Wednesday’s trade deadline.
“I expect teams that I have talked to in the past will follow up and there will be lots of talk and speculation,” said Murray, who wants to stay out of the team’s off-ice soap opera. “For me, it’s just about the hockey. It’s about continuing to talk trade. It’s about continuing to get ready for the draft. It’s about continuing to evaluate the hockey staff. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing.
“I’m going to be grateful forever that Pat hired me and gave me my first GM job. I can’t make choices for him. He makes his own choices. We all do. I’m not one to dwell on what-ifs and sentiment and all that.”