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Nolan returns to where it started Ex-Sabres coach, Isles visit Arena

Ted Nolan is nervous.

He admitted he is. He's not sure what will happen the first time he walks the 20 or so paces through the tunnel that leads from the visitors' dressing room, passes beneath section 106 and emerges behind the enemy bench in HSBC Arena.

From a time when there still were boats on Lake Erie, concerts in Lafayette Square and baseball games in Dunn Tire Park, Nolan has awaited this afternoon.

Actually, he has been imagining it for nine years, but it wasn't until this summer that another NHL team finally gave him a chance to coach. And as soon as he could gaze at a schedule he searched for the date his New York Islanders would pay their first visit to the Buffalo Sabres.

It happens this afternoon. Nolan will coach his first game in the arena since his bitterly controversial exit from the Sabres nearly a decade ago.

"The excitement and nerves, it's almost like Christmas morning or you're playing your first National Hockey League game," Nolan said Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. "It's exciting. This place was a very special place and I really enjoyed my time that I spent here.

Today's game, Nolan said, has "been in the forefront of my mind. . . . Coaching on Long Island, the first game they look at is the New York Rangers. But on a personal note, just for this one time, I think it's going to be a special game."

It's safe to assume many Sabres fans scanned the schedule and bought tickets specifically to witness Nolan's return.

"This is where it all started," former Sabres enforcer Rob Ray said. "He had a ton of success here, and people loved him. He had an awesome following here, not just from the players, but off the ice.

"Nine years he's been gone and people still talk about it. That's the impression he left."

Nolan remains one of the most popular sports figures in Buffalo history. Fans speak his name in reverential terms for the way he guided a group of overachievers to the 1996-97 Northeast Division title. Derek Plante was the leading scorer. Ray, Matthew Barnaby and Brad May bashed anything they could catch. Dominik Hasek blossomed into a superstar.

"He's a very charismatic person," said goalie Martin Biron, the only current Sabre who played for Nolan. "Everybody in this locker room respected him and played hard for him. The Sabres were known to have not as much talent as maybe people would have liked, but fans always knew they were coming out to play."

Nolan won the Jack Adams Award as the 1996-97 season's best coach. Then it ended because of a messy power struggle in the Sabres' volatile front office. He didn't work another NHL game until the Islanders reached out.

"I think time was the best thing to just forget about what happened and move on," Nolan said. "What's happened in the past is gone and it's over with and hopefully the fans will remember just the good times."

Nolan, coaching last season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, was unable to attend Pat LaFontaine's jersey retirement in HSBC Arena. A taped message from Nolan was shown on the video scoreboard, drawing an ovation second only to LaFontaine's introduction.

Ray said today's welcome should be tremendous.

"It's been past due," Ray said. "I'd want to think they'd give him a pretty darn good reception with everything that went on. They should be glad he's back because he never really did anything to be blackballed the way he was . . . or whatever happened."

Sabres play-by-play broadcaster Rick Jeanneret predicted Nolan's reception would be warm, but not overwhelming. Jeanneret figured too much time has passed.

"I don't think people buy tickets to see a coach," Jeanneret said. "I certainly wouldn't. He's an integral part of the team, but you don't buy a ticket to see a coach. He doesn't stand on his head. He doesn't spit nickels. He stands behind the bench and does whatever he does back there."

Nolan has the Islanders in the playoff race, and the fans have embraced him for it. A Newsday poll asked Internet readers who the Islanders' most valuable contributor has been this season. As of Sunday night, Nolan was leading with 50.9 percent of the votes.

Nolan said the same philosophy that worked with Ray and Barnaby in Buffalo still translates to Alexei Yashin and Miroslav Satan on Long Island.

"It's just believing," Nolan said. "We might get out-skated. We might get out-hit. We might get out-sized. There's always going to be someone faster, someone bigger, someone stronger. But if you don't believe you can beat them, there's no sense playing."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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