Ted Nolan knew before he was hired to coach the Polish national team that the country was long on ambition but short on players. Talk about finding a man suited for the job. Nolan's career is defined by his ability to build teams that were greater than the sum of their parts no matter the level or location.
Nolan's gift for motivating and communicating, effective with hungry players who are willing to listen, is why the Sabres hired him twice. They won a division title on maximum effort and goaltending in 1996-97, when he was named NHL Coach of the Year. But he's not going to turn Poland into an overnight sensation.
Poland wouldn't even stand a chance against the abysmal Buffalo teams Nolan coached to consecutive last-place finishes in 2014 and 2015, thanks largely to a front office that believed losing translated to winning. As bad as the Sabres were, and they were hideous, every player on the roster would have been a star in Poland.
"This is probably my biggest challenge to date," Nolan said Tuesday by telephone from his home in Canada. "You have to win the lower division to get to the higher division. You have to knock off a team like Latvia or Kazakhstan or Italy or Austria. Those are the teams we're going to be aiming for. Right now, we don't have enough athletes."
What to do? Get to work.
Nolan isn't just scouring North America for players with Polish descent who aren't good enough to play for their home countries. He's taking a dive deep into Ancestry.com for players who didn't know they were Polish but can play in the world championships and help his team qualify for the Olympics.
He could be examining your family tree. Nolan is aware of the high Polish population in places like Buffalo and Chicago, hockey towns that are worth sifting through for hidden jewels. Certainly, there must be one current or former player in Western New York who can help the former Sabres coach.
"Maybe there's a player who thought he was German but is really Polish," Nolan said. "We're going to do some searching to find players who can play in the Polish league, get their time in and play on the national team down the road. The country has been built on people from different countries. Maybe it's Patrick Kane."
Nolan was kidding about Kane, but his latest venture into international hockey is no joke. He's hoping to popularize the game in Poland, starting at the youth level. He wants to increase funding, build more rinks and develop better players. Poland has produced very few NHL players, the best being Mariusz Czerkawski.
In 2011, Nolan was summoned to steer Latvia's national team in the right direction. He guided them into the world championships in 2012 and 2013, helped them qualify for the 2014 Olympics and coached them to a victory over Switzerland. Latvia nearly beat almighty Canada before falling, 2-1, in Sochi.
Nolan took the same approach with Latvia that he had with every other team he coached from Sault Ste. Marie to Buffalo. His goal was getting the most out of his players. Brad Marchand has credited Nolan for developing him into a star. Zemgus Girgensons played better under Nolan than he did for any other coach.
"A basic human instinct is communication," Nolan said. "If you can learn how to communicate with somebody, it gets them to be better than what they think they are. How many systems are there, really? Anybody who understands hockey can learn a system in a weekend coaches' clinic. How to get people to implement that system is the hard part."
Nolan could work his magic with Poland, but he had no chance of winning during his second stint in Buffalo. Pat LaFontaine hired Nolan in 2013 to help clean up the mess left behind by Darcy Regier, who drove the franchise into the ground and sold ownership on the asinine tank idea.
You know what happened: LaFontaine was forced to resign after getting railroaded by longtime Pegula associates who convinced Kim Pegula that LaFontaine spoke ill of her. Kim Pegula should have known it was hogwash. LaFontaine rarely says anything negative about anybody, let alone a co-owner who handed him a dream job.
The idea that he quit, as sold by Ted Black, was utter nonsense.
"You know," Nolan said. "It doesn't need to be written, and it doesn't need to be said. For Pat LaFontaine to quit? Never. It's not in his DNA. And as much as I loved Buffalo, Patty loved Buffalo even more. … I know he didn't quit. They know he didn't quit. And they know that I know he didn't quit."
Regardless, once LaFontaine was gone, Nolan knew his days with the Sabres were numbered under Tim Murray. Nolan coached a team with intentions of winning while working for an organization that was hell-bent on losing. Murray handed him a terrible roster, ensuring the Sabres finished dead last.
"You could take Toe Blake, Al Arbour and Scotty Bowman, and I don't think all three of them together could have done much better – or better at all," Nolan said. "It was very, very difficult. Winning is extremely hard. When you haven't got the proper people, it magnifies the problem even more."
Nolan had refrained from speaking publicly about his time in Buffalo because he was still under contract, and therefore an employee, until a few weeks ago. Days before Poland hired him, he cashed the final paycheck of his three-year contract worth $3 million with the Sabres. Nolan said he gained 30 pounds during his final year in Buffalo and suffered from low self-esteem and depression after he was fired.
"The whole year was McDavid, McDavid, McDavid," Nolan said. "I just don't think Tim gave me a fair opportunity or got to know me. I don't think Terry and Kim got to know who I am. But when I look back on it, I'm very thankful. Buffalo is my kind of town. I loved Buffalo."
Over the past two years, Nolan picked himself up, cleared his mind, regained his health and resumed his life. He resumed raising awareness and money for underprivileged Native Americans across Canada, directing his attention where it had been when he wasn't involved in hockey.
He and sons Jordan and Brandon also founded the 3N clothing line, selling hoodies, hats and T-shirts. A portion of the proceeds are sent to the Ted Nolan Foundation, which uses the money to educate women of the First Nation. In 2004, he set up scholarships in the name of his late mother, Rose Nolan.
And he never lost his passion for coaching. Nolan inquired about NHL positions that popped open after his second stint with the Sabres. Much like his first time around in Buffalo, teams showed little interest. He wasn't even looking for a job when a representative from Poland reached out to him about 10 days ago.
Now he has a new mission and a new country but the same objective. Building a successful program in Poland seems a tall order, but you know Ted Nolan. He never wavered from a challenge, never lost faith in his ability to coach and never lost sight of what's required to win.
"It takes a whole team," Nolan said. "You build through the team. You develop through the team. You have to be patient. You get the right character players with the right skill set. Even when you have all those things in order, it's still difficult to win. That's why there's only one that does."