BUFFALO – Almost six years later, Sabres winger Jordan Nolan remembers nearly every detail of his first day in the NHL, from the early-morning knock on his door informing him the Los Angeles Kings needed him in Long Island, to his linemates that night.
However, one important part of Nolan’s NHL debut Feb. 11, 2012 has escaped his mind.
“I don’t remember if we won or lost, to tell you the truth,” Nolan said this morning prior to his 300th NHL game. “I have a feeling we lost, if I had to guess.”
Nolan, 28, guessed correctly. The Kings fell 2-1 to the New York Islanders that night at Nassau Coliseum, with Mark Streit scoring the overtime winner off an assist from current Sabres winger Matt Moulson.
But the rest of that day is still vivid to Nolan, who has forged an unlikely career, morphing from a seventh-round pick into a two-time Stanley Cup winner.
“My last year in junior (in 2009-10) was kind of when I realized I had to turn it on a little bit,” Nolan said after the Sabres prepared for the Detroit Red Wings inside KeyBank Center. “It was either if I didn’t work hard or commit to the game, I was going to go to school and play (university) hockey, kind of give up my NHL dream, and I beared down that year, I worked out, I ate right, and then I was able to get a contract.”
Nolan began his pro career with a three-game stint in the ECHL – no other current Sabre played in that league, which bills itself as “AA Hockey” – before earning a promotion to the Manchester Monarchs, then the Kings’ top affiliate.
By 2011-12, Nolan’s second pro season, he hit the Kings’ radar as an AHL prospect.
“Started out pretty good,” Nolan said of his pro career. “I thought, ‘I’m doing pretty well right now. I’m one of the leaders and I feel like I’m one of the better players on the team.’ I think that’s when I knew I kind of had a chance to play in the NHL.”
That chance finally materialized more than halfway through the 2011-12 season. The Kings, ironically, recalled Nolan with his friend and roommate Dwight King.
The team only called King, though.
“He knocked on my door like 8 in the morning and said, ‘We got the call,’” Nolan said. “So I didn’t even get a call, they called my roommate, told him. So that’s pretty interesting.”
Nolan never would’ve guessed it during the four-hour ride from New Hampshire to Long Island, but he was almost done playing in the minors. He quickly carved out a job as a gritty fourth-liner, a role he still plays today. He would only return to the AHL for a 21-game stint during the NHL lockout the next season.
Nolan played beside King and center Mike Richards that night, generating about six scoring chances, he said.
“I was just so nervous I couldn’t put anything in,” he said.
But that couldn’t spoil Nolan’s debut. His family, including his father, Ted, who coached the Sabres twice as well as the Islanders, and brother, Brandon, who briefly played for the Carolina Hurricanes, attended.
“I remember just family being there, everyone was pretty proud of me,” Nolan said.
Nolan won his first Cup that spring, playing all 20 playoff games. He won again in 2014.
These days, Nolan, who was claimed on waivers last month, is probably the Sabres’ toughest player.
“He’s mentally strong, he’s prepared, he approaches the game the right way,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “I really like the physicality he brought (Saturday) against Boston, he was finishing his checks. You might not see it, but when you watch it on film, those things add up.”