Ted Nolan was asked after signing his contract extension Monday why he connected so well with Buffalo and its fans. The Sabres coach, back for another twirl, mentioned how he came from the same type of background as the people here. He effectively slipped communal buzzwords such as “work” and “blue-collar” and “effort” into his message.
“If you’re honest with them, that’s the key,” Nolan said. “You can’t lie. You can’t fluff things that aren’t there. If you’re truthful and straightforward, they appreciate it that much more.”
Ah, yes, honesty.
Now, there’s a novel concept that’s been foreign to the organization. It’s been absent for so long that it’s become difficult to decipher fact from fiction even when people speak the truth. The Sabres for years made a habit of bending, twisting and fabricating the facts. They made Pinocchio look like Porky Pig.
It goes back to Nolan’s first stint in Buffalo, which ended with him essentially getting kicked out the door. Yes, I know he rejected a one-year contract offer, but let’s not get into semantics. They offered him a lousy deal that they knew he wouldn’t accept and basically pushed him out the door.
In other words, they fired him.
It continued with Pat LaFontaine. My intention is not to rehash LaFontaine’s firing – oops, I mean resignation – so much as make a point about Nolan. LaFontaine is gone, but the man he hired to coach the Sabres is still here. He may not speak the truth every single time because he is, after all, in professional sports.
In Nolan, however, fans have someone they can trust. We’ll see about Tim Murray, who gets the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. I’ve been inclined to watch what the Sabres do rather than listen to what they say, a residual effect from previous regimes and validated by current executives.
Nolan and Murray have an opportunity to turn suspicion into belief, however. They passed their first test together Monday when they answered a few simple questions about Nolan’s contract extension, which alone could be construed as a sign of progress.
One, Nolan confirmed that it’s a three-year deal. That may not seem like a major revelation. It’s standard length. It had been rumored for weeks before the Sabres made it official. Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff treated their contracts like state secrets. It backfired for Regier when it was revealed he received a golden parachute from Tom Golisano, which essentially allowed him to survive the ownership change. Terry Pegula trumped that blunder with another deal that was kept quiet until it eventually emerged and led to more mistrust.
Two, Nolan’s contract doesn’t include a confidentiality clause. Knowing Nolan, it wasn’t a surprise. It’s hard to fathom him ever allowing money to become bigger than his voice, bigger than his soul. Knowing the Sabres, it was surprising. They have silenced others, notably LaFontaine.
Sabres fans can take comfort knowing Nolan is big on the truth. It’s how he handles himself in public and how he handles players. He doesn’t mince words or massage the language. His message is clear. Young players especially need to hear the truth from their coach because they may not from anyone else.
Honesty works. In fact, it will help his players improve. Someday, if all goes well and they continue to develop, they might even look like an NHL team rather than a bunch of rich kids playing for Moose Jaw.
Another truth is that the Murray needed Nolan on many fronts if the organization planned to move forward. Nolan can help the Sabres in terms of hockey and public relations after both turned into simultaneous disasters when LaFontaine was, um, strongly encouraged to use the exit.
In the short term, the extension brings a semblance of stability to an organization on the verge of implosion. To review, the Sabres were going to win a Stanley Cup in three years under Ruff, who supposedly was never getting fired before getting fired. Then, it was Regier being allowed to clean up a mess he created. Then it was LaFontaine running the show before getting run from the show.
Nolan has a history of inspiring people around him, particularly young players. He’s a passionate guy who spent an abundance of time and energy this season establishing his own credibility and approach on the fly. Now that he’s staying, he can build on this season. Every returning player will know what to expect when training camp rolls around.
The extension also relieves sting from the LaFontaine debacle. LaFontaine was popular around town. He appeared to be moving in the right direction before he was undermined, or he undermined others, depending on what you believe. For what it’s worth, the former appears far more likely.
Nolan is another popular figure. If he would have split, it would have equated to another layer of dysfunction and more discontent toward a franchise already teetering on irrelevance. Nolan staying is one step among many needed if the organization is to reverse course.
Nolan and Murray appear to be a good match. They share a similar no-nonsense approach. Murray arrived with an objective view and has shown little patience for drama or hurt feelings. He has a way of being porky, witty and charming at the same time, which is attractive to a frustrated fan base.
Murray was quick to acknowledge the daily challenges forced upon Nolan this season. He took over a terrible team. LaFontaine suddenly fell out of favor. His star goaltender and captain were traded. The losses piled up. Still, he was impressed with Nolan after seeing how players responded to him.
“I don’t know if there was one ‘eureka!’ moment,” Murray said. “It has taken some time for all of us to get to know everybody. I’ve been watching closely. The positives far outweigh the negatives. I got to a point that I wanted him back and I wanted him to be our head coach.”
After years of watching an organization snow fans who were desperate to believe anything, their partnership via LaFontaine is a refreshing change. They’re looking for the same qualities that fans appreciate, particularly in Buffalo. They want talented players who give a full effort.
They want good, honest players. In these parts, honesty works.