Ted Nolan's long exile from the NHL is over.
The New York Islanders hired Nolan as head coach and Neil Smith as general manager Thursday, marking a welcome return to the league for both men following extensive layoffs.
Nolan and Smith previously held similar posts in the NHL. Nolan served as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres from 1995 to 1997 and Smith was GM of the Rangers from 1992 to 2000.
The newcomers will get plenty of help turning around the fortunes of the Islanders as Pat Lafontaine, who played for Nolan in Buffalo and for Smith in New York, was introduced as a senior advisor to Islanders owner Charles Wang, and Brian Trottier was brought in last week as executive director of player development.
"I'm extremely proud of the team of leaders we have put together," Wang said in a statement.
"This is the group that will develop a team that will bring the next Stanley Cup to Long Island."
"It's very challenging for GMs [to build a winning team]," Smith said. "You saw four teams in the final four that didn't make the playoffs in 2004.
"The entry draft and acquisition of young players is more important than ever. The teams that do the best job with the evaluation of talent and drafting are going to be the ones who do well."
Nolan, 48, takes over for Islanders interim head coach Brad Shaw, who replaced the fired Steve Stirling on Jan. 12.
In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, Nolan, an Ojibwa, alluded that his eight-year absence from the NHL was because of his race and unfounded claims that he was a troublemaker with management.
"This is an opportunity that I was unsure I would ever receive again," Nolan admitted. "For that reason, I am more charged up about this challenge than any in my life."
Relegated tojunior ranks
Nolan coached the Moncton Wildcats to a QMJHL championship this past season and a berth in the Memorial Cup final, losing 6-2 to the arch-rival Quebec Remparts.
Nolan, who coached the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to a Memorial Cup championship in 1993, joined the Wildcats last April 26.
"I would have run down here for the opportunity," he said. "I'm really excited about coaching again in the NHL and being part of this organization.
"Sometimes if you miss something, you pretend you do not. I just tried to close it off and pretend it was not there any more, but down deep I missed it."
Nolan began his career in the NHL as an assistant coach for the Hartford Whalers in 1994-95 before becoming head coach of the Sabres.
Although Nolan and the Sabres missed the playoffs in 1995-96, they finished first in the NHL Northeast Division the following season.
Nolan won the Jack Adams Award as the league's top coach, but rejected a one-year contract offer from Sabres GM Darcy Regier and left.
Nolan reportedly turned down offers to coach the Tampa Bay Lightning (1997) and the Islanders (1998), albeit as an assistant.
Stanley Cup architect
Smith, 52, was hired as Rangers GM on July 17, 1989, and constructed the 1994 squad, captained by Mark Messier, that captured the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years.
Smith also brought Wayne Gretzky to New York, yet was criticized when he overpaid for foundering veterans like Theoren Fleury and Sylvain Lefebvre.
"It was because of the Islanders that I was able to make a championship team [with the cross-town Rangers]," Smith said. "The Islanders showed me what it takes to win, what to expect out of yourself and what to expect out of your players."
Smith, by coincidence, was drafted as a defenceman by the Islanders (204th overall in 1974), but never played in the NHL.
After several seasons in the minor leagues, he was hired by the Islanders as a pro scout.
"I'm thrilled to be back home again where I started," Smith said.
Smith joined the Detroit Red Wings as director of pro scouting in 1982, and later captured two Calder Cups as GM of Detroit's AHL affiliate in Adirondack.
Smith most recently worked as a hockey analyst for the Outdoor Life Network, which broadcasts NHL games in the United States.