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THE UNTOUCHABLE
NHL'S OLD BOY NETWORK BRANDS TED NOLAN A BOSS KILLER

Ted Nolan said he hadn't seen what has amounted to his professional death sentence until someone sent him a copy in the mail.

It was a quote attributed to Neil Smith, the general manager of the New York Rangers. It appeared in the Toronto Star the day the National Hockey League season resumed after the Olympic break. The Rangers were in Toronto and someone had asked Smith why he hired John Muckler as the coach to replace the fired Colin Campbell, and whether he considered hiring Nolan.

"Ted had two great seasons in Buffalo, but there are other people available who have had a lot of great seasons," Smith said.

He added that a perception among some general managers that Nolan isn't a team player has hurt Nolan's chances of getting a job.

"In any business, if you turn on your boss and then you move on, the next guy who might be your boss is probably going to be a little wary," said Smith. "Whether or not it's fair, that perception is out there."

It couldn't be more "out there" if Smith's words were tattooed on Nolan's forehead. The NHL's old boy network seemingly has put the word out on Nolan: Boss Killer. There have been six coaching changes since the season began and the reigning Coach of the Year has yet to get an offer. He hasn't even been interviewed.

Fair or not, Nolan says he now knows what he's dealing with.

"You know, it's kind of funny in a way," he said recently by phone from his Fort Erie home. "The other night I was at a charity dinner for Easter Seals in Toronto, and the new manager of the Blue Jays (Tim Johnson) leans over to me and says 'You know if I won Manager of the Year I'd get a five-year deal for sure. What the heck is it with your sport?'

"I didn't know how to answer him."

Nolan said he was both shocked and a little bit hurt by Smith's remarks, but it was now clear to him that he's regarded as a boss killer in the NHL. He said he doesn't really know the general manager of the Rangers and that Smith really doesn't know him, but the fact that Smith gave voice to what has been whispered about Nolan since the Sabres pulled their contract offer off the table last summer makes it clear that he has a bad reputation.

A reputation he feels is undeserved.

"In that same story, someone asked him (Smith) if he thought there would be a problem between John (Muckler) and Patty (LaFontaine) because they didn't get along in Buffalo, and he said if there was a problem it was a problem in Buffalo and this is a different situation," Nolan said. "Why does he (Muckler) get a second chance and I don't? I really don't understand it. I mean, if it's a different situation now for Muckler, why not for me?"

Nolan said he's asked himself that question at least a thousand times. He admits there were problems between himself and Muckler in Buffalo. There were obviously problems between himself and team president Larry Quinn and later with Quinn's new general manager, Darcy Regier. Regier eventually took the club's one-year contract extension offer off the table, but Nolan said the perception of him being a person who can't work with people couldn't be further from the truth.

"Were there problems in Buffalo? Did we have disagreements? Of course we did, but I have disagreements with my wife and we're still married," Nolan said. "I've had disagreements with my kids, but we're still a family. We had some disagreements in Buffalo, but certainly nothing to screw a guy for life over."

His problems with goalie Dominik Hasek no doubt accelerated the decision not to rehire him.

Nolan said he's still not sure where those problems with Hasek began and why they escalated as they did. He said he spoke with Hasek several times near the end of last season and once when the playoffs were over, but said Hasek never said what the problems were or that they couldn't be resolved. Nevertheless, he said he was certain the moment Hasek spoke out against him he was finished in Buffalo.

Nolan said he was at first bitter about the way it all came out, especially in light of the fact that Quinn was interviewing replacement candidates as far back as February 1997, a point at which the team was in the midst of a 12-game unbeaten streak that would propel it to the Northeast Division title.

"I was bitter about that," he said. "But there comes a time when you have to let it go or it just consumes you."

He said he still thinks about getting back into hockey and hopes he'll get one more chance, but he doesn't let the wait consume him.

"Five months ago I did a seminar on leadership with some people from Royal Bank (of Canada). They liked it so much I've been invited back five times," Nolan said. "I've been asked by the national chief (Nolan is an Ojibway Indian) to work with him in reaching out to aboriginal youth. I've just signed a contract with the minister of Indian Affairs to be the official spokesman for the program to aid native children. I've been awarded the Order of Ontario for my work with various groups whose goal it is to make life better for native people. I've been busier that I thought I might be."

Nolan said he has several regrets about the way it ended in Buffalo. He's bothered by the perception that he can't work with people, a charge he says is negated by his work in the political and social arenas. He also said he regrets doing a television interview in which he said he knew he was a better coach than Lindy Ruff.

"I shouldn't have said that," he said. "I was trying to say I was a good coach, but I brought his name into it and I regret doing that. He had nothing to do with my situation there and I think as a coach he's had to go through almost as many difficult moments as I did."

Almost since the day he made those remarks, Nolan said, he's vowed to lower his profile. He was never available for interviews when his name was linked to a coaching job in Tampa earlier this season. He's stayed away from comments about Hasek. Nolan said he's been dodging the numerous requests for interviews since Muckler surfaced with the Rangers, but felt he had to respond to Smith's "perception" quote.

"I knew it was out there," he said of his reputation as a boss killer, "but I thought if I kept silent it would just go away. A couple of months ago I was approached to do some work for Canada's national team (he's been scouting players for the upcoming World Championships) and I got a call from a buddy who said one of the coaches there called him and asked him 'what's wrong with Ted Nolan?' He said one of the general managers from Canada told him to 'stay away from Nolan.'

"I knew then that I was in trouble even though a lot of what had happened (in Buffalo) wasn't my fault," he said. "As for my situation now, I want to coach again. I miss it worse than I thought I would. It's a part of me . . . I always think worst case and I've told myself if it wasn't meant to be, then it wasn't meant to be and I'll turn the page and go on, but for the life of me I can't figure why.

"Has there ever been anyone else who won that award (Coach of the Year) and didn't ever get a chance to coach again? Guys have been fired during the next year after they won, but at least they got a chance to come back. I didn't even get that.

"I hope to coach again, but the longer it goes on (no job and the reputation as a boss killer) you just don't know.

"I really believe I've done nothing that would keep a man out for the rest of his life. There are people who get caught drinking and driving, or they're involved in spousal abuse, bar fights, all kinds of crimes against society and they get back to work. I never did anything close to that. I had a disagreement with one man. Nothing close to those other things.

"Is that enough to ruin a guy's career? No way."

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