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REHIRING NOLAN ISN'T KIND OF JOLT THAT SABRES NEED

I imagine some Sabres fans must be giddy with anticipation about now. You can hardly blame them. John Rigas finally gets control of the franchise. He thanks Lindy Ruff for keeping the chair warm and restores Ted Nolan to his rightful position as head coach.

Nolan goes back behind the Sabres' bench. Worshipful, exuberant crowds flock to Marine Midland Arena to welcome back their favorite son. The scene is moving, electric. The players perform with a renewed sense of purpose. They hit and skate and make their inexorable move up through the Northeast Division.

There's no denying the romantic appeal of a Nolan return. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea. Rigas should resist the urge to make a grandstand play in his initial move as the team's principal owner.

Granted, this was Nolan's team. He was the players' choice, the people's choice, the coach of the year. He never should have been forced out. He is a supreme motivator and a winner. But bringing him back now, while firing Ruff this deep into the season, would hurt the team and make the franchise look like even more of a joke to the outside world.

Changing coaches at this point would be an affront to the players. They've spent nearly half a season getting over Nolan's ouster and adjusting to Ruff's system. To switch it back around on them now would seem like a cruel joke. It's hard to imagine it doing much for their play.

Ruff has worked hard, under near-impossible circumstances, to pull together the personalities in his locker room. It's still not perfect, but he's come a long way. Even Matthew Barnaby, the most devoted Nolan supporter on the team, has come around in recent weeks.

Then, of course, there's goaltender Dominik Hasek, whose dislike for Nolan has been well-documented. After a rocky start, he's again performing at an MVP level. How do you suppose he'll react if Nolan returns in the middle of the season? Whether you like him or not, Hasek is the main reason the Sabres win games. If they screw up his mind again, they might as well throw the season out the window.

If Rigas rehired Nolan, he'd have to gut his hockey department. General manager Darcy Regier would have to go. Larry Carriere and Don Luce, veteran personnel men who were loyal to John Muckler and didn't get along with Nolan, might be fired, too. Rigas would have to rebuild his hockey department and hope it got its act together in time for the draft.

Rigas seems too wise and patient a businessman to create that sort of chaos in his organization. The main justification for such a rash move would be to pump up the gate and stanch the flow of red ink at Marine Midland Arena.

Still, there's no guarantee that bringing back Nolan would have a major impact on attendance. People don't pay high ticket prices to watch a guy stand behind the bench in a suit.

A Nolan return would bring back some disaffected season-ticket holders. But Rigas will get a good chunk of them back by simply removing Larry Quinn as Sabres president -- which is almost sure to happen as soon as the ink is dry on the new ownership agreement.

On the whole, Buffalo hockey fans' disdain for Quinn is deeper than their affection for Nolan. Seeing Quinn dumped would in itself be enough to get a lot of them back.

After the season, Rigas can take stock of the situation and make a move. If he decides Nolan is the right man to coach, so be it. The players will have a full offseason and training camp to become reacquainted with him.

Rigas has a reputation as a man of principle and honor. If he respects the players in that Buffalo dressing room, and if he respects the game, he should let Ruff finish the job he was hired to do. The team doesn't need another emotional jolt, another needless disruption.

If Rigas brings back Nolan now, all he does is turn it back into a circus.

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