BUFFALO – Ted Nolan’s loud voice boomed throughout the ice during the Sabres’ lively 60-minute practice Thursday inside the First Niagara Center. The interim coach kept encouraging his players, even following them during the up-tempo drills.
The Sabres responded to the fast pace, showcasing much more energy and emotion than they had under Ron Rolston, who was fired Wednesday in a major shakeup.
Players tapped sticks, hooted and hollered. Most importantly, they seemed to be having fun.
“It was really fast,” winger Tyler Ennis said about Nolan’s first real practice after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s home tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We moved through things quickly. It was definitely higher and a lot more energy.”
Nolan will coach his first Sabres game since May 11, 1997 tonight and his first NHL contest since April 4, 2008.
With another game Saturday in Toronto, Nolan can quickly put his imprint on the 4-15-1 Sabres.
“We have a chance to do it back-to-backers,” Nolan said. “The next is ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’ So it doesn’t get much bigger than that, the stage, and when you’re an athlete, those are the type of situations you want to be put into.”
He added: “I told them buckle up, because it’s going to be a good ride.”
What’s Nolan’s message to his players?
“We want teams to hate playing against us and we got to outwork them, play a lot faster,” Ennis said.
Sabres defenseman Mike Weber called Thursday’s session a fast-paced, NHL-style practice.
“Not a lot of explaining,” he said. “We got to the board to start, get the list of drills and away we go. That’s high intensity, and that’s the way we got to be. Hopefully, this corrects our starts.”
Clearly, Nolan wants the Sabres to play like they practice.
“I think we’re excited,” Ennis said. “I think everyone’s working hard. Our room’s excited. You can feel that energy. Today was a really energetic practice.”
Sabres winger John Scott believes Nolan will instill an identity the Sabres have been missing for years.
“It was an up-pace tempo,” the tough guy said. “The boys were skating. It was up and down the ice, no breaks. He wants to play a certain type of game and he definitely drilled it into our heads. We better get used to that because it’s going to be like that the rest of the year.”
Everybody, Sabres captain Steve Ott said, feels energized.
“I think the feeling is guys know this is a fresh, clean slate,” he said. “You got to be at the top of your game and nothing’s given right now. If it was given, it was too easy. So let’s prove ourselves out there again. I think all the guys are up for this challenge.”
Nolan said Thursday’s practice “went OK.” He spent most of Wednesday’s session observing.
“We got a lot of work to do,” he said. “We got some things to do. I think the biggest thing is getting these guys to feel good about themselves.”
To do that, Nolan has given everyone a clean slate. He doesn’t care much about the Sabres’ awful start.
“What happened yesterday is done, it’s over with,” Nolan said. “What happened our first 20 games of the season is done, it’s over with. I talked to some of the players. Every stat they have is out the door, forget about it. (Tonight) against the Leafs we start anew, and we’re going to compete.”
Nolan’s learning on the fly. He found out several days ago he would be taking over the rebuilding club, although some legal technicalities – he’s the Latvian national team’s coach – prevented him from officially being hired.
To catch up, Nolan has been trying to meet with about four or five players every two hours.
“Every one of them I’ve talked to so far, they’re just like my son, every son and daughter in this room,” Nolan said. “Everybody needs direction. Everybody need encouragement. So we’re going to try to give them some proper direction and encouragement and try to get better.”
Ott said he had “a good chat” with Nolan on Wednesday.
“He said he’s going to be working with things here in the next little while, figuring out which guys tick, which guys don’t,” Ott said. “I’m sure everything’s going to be earned here, no matter if you’re a leader, a young guy or a veteran guy. Everything’s got to be earned.”
But the newness of everything isn’t overwhelming, Ott said. After all, “It’s still hockey.”
“It’s still playing a game we’ve played our whole lives out there,” Ott said. “Obviously, new coach, new mentality. We’re trying to create a new culture, obviously, throughout the season, but it’s still a game out there.”