Monday, May 24, 1993 was no ordinary Victoria Day in Sault Ste. Marie.
The Northern Ontario town rocked and rolled well into the early morning hours two decades ago.
It was Greyhound Day in the Soo. The town's beloved junior hockey team had beaten Chris Pronger and the Peterborough Petes in the Memorial Cup final at the Sault Memorial Gardens the previous night. Nobody wanted the party to end.
After the final seconds ticked down on the 4-2 victory the citizens spilled into the streets to celebrate. They finally had overcome all the heartbreak.
There were the unsuccessful trips to the Memorial Cup the previous two years. There was the Eric Lindros saga, in which he shunned the organization after then Greyhounds owner Phil Esposito drafted him first overall in 1989. There was the disappointment of that excellent 1984-85 Greyhounds team that failed to parlay its OHL Championship into a Memorial Cup title.
When the Greyhounds won you were pleased for the players and the ownership group, led by Dr. George Shunock, that saved the local team. You were pleased for general manager Sherry Bassin, who turned that Lindros trade into championship building blocks. But most of all you were pleased for head coach Ted Nolan.
An Obijway, Nolan was born and raised on the Garden River First Nation Reserve near Sault Ste. Marie. He played for the Greyhounds as a teenager and then moved away to embark on an eight-year pro career, mostly in the Detroit Red Wings' system. He suited up for 78 NHL games with Detroit and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He said he endured racism during his playing days.
Nolan turned his experience into inspiration. You look around now and see some of his junior players still coaching in Bob Boughner (Windsor Spitfires head coach), Rick Kowalsky (Albany Devils head coach), David Matsos (Sudbury Wolves associate coach), Drew Bannister (Owen Sound Attack assistant coach) and Adam Foote (Colorado Avalanche assistant coach).
NHL takes notice
After Nolan's success behind the Greyhounds bench, the NHL finally took notice. He spent the 1994-95 lockout-shortened season as an assistant with the Hartford Whalers. He then received his shot at the helm of the Buffalo Sabres, where he finds himself now 16 years after he was named the winner of the Jack Adams Trophy.
Nolan's two-year stint ended with the Sabres because he lost a power struggle with all-star goaltender Dominik Hasek, who quit on Nolan in the playoffs, saying he couldn't play because of a knee injury. Then Nolan endured more hurt.
He was branded a general manager killer because of an irreparable rift between him and John Muckler, the Sabres GM at the time. Muckler wound up getting fired. But the new GM, Darcy Regier, offered Nolan only a one-year deal that he quickly turned down. Nolan felt he deserved more security.
In an interview Nolan gave me during the 2006 Memorial Cup -- in which he won the QMJHL championship with the Moncton Wildcats, only to lose at home in the Memorial Cup final to head coach Patrick Roy and the Quebec Remparts -- he told me about how a Sabres team doctor told him there was gossip floating around town that he slept with a player's wife.
He laughed and later asked the doctor to retell the tall tale to Nolan's wife, Sandra. Then, in an interview with another NHL club after his Buffalo days, a general manager asked Nolan whether it was true he missed a couple of Sabres practices because he was drunk.
"When they ask me stuff like that, I felt like getting up and walking out," Nolan said back in 2006. "But then they would say, 'See, he's a hot head.' I guess this stuff fits the stereotype."
Nolan was interviewed for vacant head coaching positions with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Islanders and Calgary Flames. He also had an informal chat with the Los Angeles Kings.
He was offered the job with the Lightning in the late 1990s. But when he told his sons Brandon, who was then 12, and even younger son Jordan that they were moving to Florida, the kids started bawling. When Sandra saw this, she also cried. So Nolan called Lightning general manager Phil Esposito to turn down the job.
His return to the Sabres
this week on an interim basis is his third NHL head coaching gig. New York Islanders owner Charles Wang hired Nolan back in June 2006, a week after the Memorial Cup. Nolan had turned down Wang six months earlier because he was committed to the Wildcats.
But that stint was short lived, too. Nolan was dismissed after the Islanders failed to make the playoffs in his second season.
Here he is again, however, with another shot in Buffalo, under newly installed president of hockey operations Pat Lafontaine. He played for Nolan and it seems anybody who has played for Nolan has the utmost respect for him and loyalty.
"He's a motivator," said Sabres television analyst Rob Ray, who also played for Nolan in Buffalo. "He treats everybody the same, whether you're on the fourth line or a star. When he played that was one thing he didn't like, the way some players were treated differently.
"He also likes to give players who are battling to stay in the NHL a chance. He had to battle to stay in the game."
And that battle continues all these years later.
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