BUFFALO – Back in 2011, Ted Nolan had briefly returned to professional hockey as Rochester’s general manager, when one day his friend phoned unexpectedly.
“Ted,” the friend asked, “are you interested in going to Latvia?”
Nolan was stunned. He hadn’t coached since leaving the New York Islanders in 2008. He couldn’t even point out Latvia on a map.
“I said, ‘Where is it?’” the interim Sabres coach recalled last week inside the First Niagara Center.
Still, the job intrigued Nolan, especially the part about an Olympic-qualifying tournament in 2013. He flew to the northern European country a few days later.
His mission? Keep Latvia, which only has about 1,200 registered hockey players, in the prestigious ‘A’ Pool and help the nation get in the Sochi Games.
Latvia made it, although it’s the longest of longshots to even medal. The country has finished 12th at the last two Olympics. Coincidentally, the team has one current NHL player, Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons.
Nolan has a long history of getting the most out of his players, though. Never say never, right?
“You never know,” Nolan said. “One thing with the Olympics, that’s where dreams come true and miracles happen.”
A miracle nearly happened in Latvia’s opener Wednesday, but Switzerland scored the game’s lone goal with just 7.9 seconds left, avoiding a major upset.
Nolan said the Latvia gig initially “concerned” him. Part of him wondered what the heck he was getting into.
Little did he know the job would re-ignite his passion for coaching and help him reach the NHL again.
“I’ve really come to love the game once again as I once did when I first started,” he said.
But almost three years ago, Nolan was happily spending time with his family again. His son, Jordan, was just beginning his professional career. He was also working with his foundation that helps aboriginal youths.
“Family’s really important, and I finally had a chance to pay attention, to be the husband that I should’ve been, the dad and all that,” Nolan said. “When Latvia called me, the one thing I didn’t want to do was go overseas by myself.”
The Latvian Ice Hockey Federation told Nolan he only had to coach two or three tournaments a year.
“I said, ‘Perfect,’” Nolan said. “It was almost like having your cake and eating it, too. We selected all the players. … It’s a lot of fun putting it together.”
The job took him back to a different time in his life, the late 1980s, the beginning of his coaching career with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
“I didn’t coach to get to the National Hockey League; I coached because I really loved assembling the team and putting it together and making each individual player collectively (work toward a championship),” Nolan said.
Nolan said he strongly believes things happen for a reason. Sometimes, he said, you don’t know why.
“But they happen for reasons,” he said. “Now I have a chance to reflect.”
Without Latvia, without a recent high-level job on his resume, Pat LaFontaine, Buffalo’s president of hockey operations and a big Nolan supporter, couldn’t have hired him to coach again in November.
“I certainly wouldn’t be here in Buffalo,” Nolan said.
Nolan wouldn’t be in Sochi if he didn’t make a couple of calls shortly after his hiring. Goalie Arturs Irbe and defenseman Sandish Ozolins, two former NHL stars, were estranged from the Latvian program when he took over.
Irbe’s back as an assistant coach. Right before the qualifying tournament last February, the 41-year-old Ozolins called Nolan and said he wanted to play.
“It took us two years to get him to come back,” Nolan said. “Sure enough, he came back. If he didn’t come back in that tournament, I don’t think we go to the Olympics. He meant that much to the team.”
Nolan also means a lot.
“We never really had that high a coach,” Girgensons said. “He just kind of brought hope.”
The team only speaks Latvian in the dressing room, something Nolan, who has learned a few words “to get by,” requested. During the long Soviet occupation, Russification forced Latvians to speak Russian.
“When I first took over, the one thing I really wanted to do was get the Latvian language involved with them all over again, get the guys studying who they are, where they’re from as a nation so they’re very proud of who they are,” Nolan said.
He added: “Our language as a First Nations group was kind of taken away from us at one point. But we maintained. To hear the Latvian language, it’s a wonderful language.”
That language uses ‘S’ quite a bit.
“I walk down the road and (they) say, ‘Hey, there’s Teds Nolans,’” he said. “It’s kind of neat when you try to pick up some of the language they speak. It feels you care about their nation and who they are as a people.”