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Baiting by Quebec fans leaves Nolan shaken and stirred

Ted Nolan suspected trouble was brewing before the game, when a security man walked into the dressing room and asked the Moncton Wildcats' first-year coach if his team wanted a police escort to the bench.

Nolan was puzzled. He thought all that separated him from the fans was a hockey game.

Apparently, it was hockey and race.

Nolan for years has thought there was a strained relationship between the two, suspected it obstructed his return to the NHL after he and the Buffalo Sabres parted ways following their Northeast Division title in 1996-97. He thought he heard it all as a player, when "wagon burner" was among the friendlier slurs directed toward him.

What he experienced during a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game Dec. 16 from fans in Chicoutimi, Quebec, left Nolan, a native Ojibwa, speechless. It included name-calling, tapping their hands on their mouths in mockery of Native North Americans, shooting imaginary arrows and doing the tomahawk chop behind the bench.

"It wasn't one or two people. It was a mob," Nolan said by telephone last week. "If there was just one or two, you say, 'hey.' There had to be 50 people up there. It was probably one of the ugliest things I've ever been associated with my whole life. It was incredible. It was the first time I was emotionally shaken. I felt like I was verbally raped before 4,600 people."

At first, Nolan didn't understand what was being said because fans were screaming in French. After an assistant coach told him, he was so upset that he couldn't speak. He was so angry that he knew he shouldn't speak. Nolan acknowledged he was intimidated as a coach for the first time in his career.

The scene became so intense that the father of a player on Nolan's team was involved in a brief scuffle after somebody threw a steel garbage can in his direction. The Chicoutimi Sagueneens, the best team in the QMJHL, apologized for their fans' behavior on the team's Web site.

"You're trying to set an example for the team you're coaching," Nolan said. "The players are reacting. The crowd is going and you're in the middle of the storm. You're the one who has to be composed. It was the toughest time I've ever had being composed in all the years I remember."

Nolan was among the most popular coaches in Sabres' history. He won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's best coach after the 1996-97 season but never again stepped behind an NHL bench. He worked as a motivational speaker and, among other things, helped create a program for Native American hockey players.

He returned to coaching this year when he was hired by Moncton, which had a 24-10 record with two shootout losses going into the Christmas break. Nolan still hopes to land another NHL job and believes coaching in the QMJHL will help him.

Through a friend, Nolan inquired about the vacancy Larry Robinson created when he stepped down from the New Jersey Devils. He was awaiting the Devils' response.

"I'm always interested in coaching in the National Hockey League because I think I'm good enough to be there," he said. "To leave the situation I'm in now would be tough, but I know I can coach."

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>Hawks to clean house?

Blackhawks GM Dave Tallon has been getting more annoyed with his team by the day and is almost certain to start shaking things up after four losses in five games. Apparently, nobody is safe, including goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.

"I'm not going to sit still. Everything that's available to us we're going to go after," Tallon said. "I'll listen to anything on anybody. That's just the way it is. I'm not going to put up with it. Enough is enough."

Khabibulin entered the weekend with an 11-16-1 record, a 3.35 goals-against average and an .877 save percentage. No self-respecting GM would want those numbers or his four-year, $27.5 million contract.

The Hawks are among the teams that should make a play for Martin Biron. The Sabres should make a play for defenseman Brent Seabrook, a 20-year-old rookie and future star.

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>Mario, Luc lose steam

Take your pick on which veteran forward will retire first, Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux or future Hall of Fame winger Luc Robitaille.

Lemieux has had recurring heart abnormalities this season, as if overcoming cancer, retirement and assuming Penguins' ownership wasn't enough. Another problem has been that he has struggled to keep up with a faster game.

Robitaille suddenly looks very old in Los Angeles. He was a healthy scratch for three games and took three penalties in the first period when he returned. He had 658 goals and 1,378 points in 1,388 games, but the new rules have left him behind.

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>Goodbye, Columbus

Rick Nash spent seven weeks on the injured list before coming back and scoring three goals in his first three games. His return isn't going to save the Blue Jackets, who are riddled with injuries to key players.

Defenseman Adam Foote had missed eight of his previous 12 games going into the weekend with groin problems. Defenseman Bryan Berard, their second-leading scorer, is suffering from back problems.

Right wing David Vyborny, their leading scorer, has been suffering from sore ribs after Jason Woolley nailed him last week. Defenseman Luke Richardson had surgery after he was struck in the face with a slap shot.

Columbus was among the busier teams in free agency. The Jackets entered the weekend with the second-worst record in the league. General Manager Doug MacLean could be in trouble.

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>Medicine show

When is a concussion not really a concussion? Apparently, it's when a team's medical staff changes its diagnosis to whiplash. Not that the Flyers would ever attempt to circumvent the rules or anything, but it makes you wonder.

Trainers initially claimed Mike Richards had a concussion, presumably because he was knocked woozy and suffered from serious headaches for days after he was drilled into the boards headfirst by Vancouver's Wade Brookbank. The definition of a concussion for years has been vague, at best.

If he suffered one, Richards would have been sidelined for a minimum of one week while doctors evaluated his symptoms. Instead, his diagnosis was changed, allowing him back in the lineup for a team riddled with injuries. He missed two games with headaches and, almost forgot, a sore neck.

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>Quotable

Sean Avery, the Kings' pugilist, pest and punk, on the possibility of fighting Oilers tough guy Georges Laraque: "I'm not wasting my time fighting guys who play four minutes a night."

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>Around the boards

* West Seneca's Aaron Miller, named to Team USA for the second time last week, has been selected to the University of Vermont's all-time hockey team. Miller's father-in-law will accept a plaque for the defensemen Jan. 14, before Vermont plays Northeastern. Miller was inducted to the school's Hall of Fame in 2004.

* East Amherst native Tony Tuzzolino will suit up for Italy's hockey team in the 2006 Olympics. Tuzzolino bounced around the minors and played nine NHL games before playing professionally in Europe. The former Michigan State star graduated from Williamsville East.

* Tony Amonte left the barking to childhood buddy and former teammates Jeremy Roenick, but he was none too thrilled with being left off the U.S. Olympic team. "What are you going to do? I'm not one of their boys," he said. Here's the real reason: At 35, he's no longer good enough.

* Nice to see Panthers center Jozef Stumpel finally make an appearance this season. Stumpel had four points in his first 25 games, but he had 11 points over an 11-game stretch going into the weekend.

* Something is wrong when Canucks winger Todd Bertuzzi can play for Canada in the Olympics while Steve Moore's career remains in jeopardy. As if breaking Moore's neck wasn't enough, Bertuzzi is after the Avs forward for attorneys' fees after a judge dismissed Moore's lawsuit.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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>One-timers

Streaking Sabres: Buffalo's loss to Florida ended many a streak, but the Sabres had still won 15 of 18 games going into the weekend. They were on pace for 109 points, four off the team mark set in 1974-75.

No, Canada: It's one thing for Kings center Jeremy Roenick to mouth off about not making the U.S. Olympic team, quite another when he says he'll root for Canada in the 2006 Winter Games. J.R., for once, zip it.

Richy's Rascals: Lightning center Brad Richards spends $100,000 annually for a suite in the St. Pete Times Forum for kids fighting cancer. Richards was 7 years old when his cousin died of a brain tumor at age 5.

-- Bucky Gleason

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