BUFFALO – It was going to be a special weekend trip to New York. Ted Nolan and his wife, Sandra, would celebrate her birthday and watch their son, Jordan, play for the Los Angeles Kings.
Nolan also wanted to see “The Book of Mormon” musical on Broadway. So he recently called Pat LaFontaine, a close friend with a ticket connection.
“I said, ‘Teddy, you better get ready for the show. It’s a pretty interesting show,’” LaFontaine joked Friday prior to Nolan’s debut as the Sabres’ interim coach, a 3-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs inside the First Niagara Center. “I said, ‘Yeah, no worries. I’ll get them.’”
At that point, LaFontaine was working with Sabres owner Terry Pegula to create his new role with the team, president of hockey operations.
Eventually, LaFontaine, who said “he had talked about things one day” with Nolan, reached his former coach in Germany.
“I said, ‘Teddy, it doesn’t look like you’re going to be going to the show on Saturday,’” LaFontaine said.
Nolan asked LaFontaine if he could get tickets to another show. LaFontaine told Nolan he wouldn’t even be going to New York.
Nolan then asked LaFontaine what he would be doing. LaFontaine informed Nolan he would be coaching the Sabres in Toronto that night.
“It was total silence,” LaFontaine said. “He said, ‘You’re kidding me?’ I said, ‘Well, you got to take the job first for this year,’ and he said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Nolan then said “a couple of other things” LaFontaine joked he couldn’t repeat.
“He was emotional on the phone,” LaFontaine said. “What you see in Ted Nolan is real and genuine. So I was pretty moved by that, and I know Sandra was. He’s a great coach. He’s done a lot for the game and kids, and I’m glad he has a chance to do it here.”
Nolan called LaFontaine’s call a moment “in your life that you always remember.”
“When Patty called to inform me it was one of those moments, I did get very emotional like I am right now,” Nolan said Friday morning, hours before coaching his first Sabres game since May 11, 1997.
LaFontaine believes given everything he and Nolan have gone through, “It just seemed like there are no coincidences in life.”
“It just seemed like this is right,” LaFontaine said. “This is what it’s supposed to be right now. I said, ‘Everything you’ve learned – good and bad, ups and downs, struggles – is going to prepare you for this year, and then we’ll see what happens going forward.’ But he deserved this opportunity, and I think he’s the right guy.”
LaFontaine said he’ll start asking for permission to interview general manager candidates next week.
“It’s right in the forefront,” LaFontaine said. “I’ll be traveling and meeting with some candidates.”
What’s LaFontaine’s timetable?
“I know it’s not going to happen next week,” he said.
LaFontaine hasn’t spoken to Jason Botterill, Pittsburgh’s assistant general manager. The Penguins will grant the Sabres permission if they want to interview him, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Darcy Regier was fired Wednesday with Ron Rolston, the coach he had hired in May.
As the Latvian national team’s coach, Nolan had one center on his roster for the 2013 world championship.
“We a hand a bunch of players, but no natural center ice men,” Nolan said.
So when Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons finished his first professional season in Rochester last year, a campaign he spent playing wing, Nolan put the 19-year-old Latvian at center, his natural position.
Nolan put Girgensons, a winger all season, back at center Friday between Marcus Foligno and Brian Flynn. Foligno had played center recently.
“He one was one of our better players playing against some of the best teams in the world,” Nolan said. “We’ll watch him grow, and the fans of Buffalo are going to really appreciate him when he gets his maturity going.”
Nolan added: “He can skate. He’s a powerful kid.”
Girgensons, who had one goal and five points in his first 19 games, doesn’t mind moving to the middle.
“I already know everything about that,” he said. “It’s not that complicated.”
Girgensons wasn’t the only player Nolan moved. Ville Leino, a winger the Sabres tried making a center two years ago, switched back. Leino played center early during his professional career in Finland.
“We want to put these players where they feel comfortable so there’s no excuses,” Nolan said.
Nolan’s other lines Friday: Matt Moulson, Cody Hodgson and Drew Stafford; Tyler Ennis, Leino and Steve Ott; John Scott, Cody McCormick and Corey Tropp.
The Sabres scratched rookies Mikhail Grigorenko, Johan Larsson and Nikita Zadorov (all healthy) and defenseman Mike Weber (broken thumb).