BUFFALO – Two men who had spent their entire lives in hockey never met until a chance encounter almost 19 years ago outside Memorial Auditorium.
It was 1995-96, Ted Nolan’s first year as Sabres coach. Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier, an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was walking outside the Aud in a snowstorm when Nolan spotted him.
Nolan pulled over and offered a lift.
“We had a five-minute chat,” Trottier, one of Nolan’s new assistant coaches, recalled last week inside the First Niagara Center. “That’s the first time I ever met Ted.”
Over the years, Nolan and Trottier, a seven-time Stanley Cup winner, talked whenever they ran into each other.
“Once you say that first ‘hello,’ next time you feel a little bit more comfortable,” said Nolan, whose Sabres host the Florida Panthers tonight.
The two found they had a lot of similarities. Both have aboriginal roots and come from large families.
Eventually, Nolan and Trottier worked together a bit during Nolan’s two-year stint with the New York Islanders, where Trottier, an Isles legend, was director of player of development.
“We always had lots to talk about,” Trottier said.
Still, they never phoned each other to chat.
“It’s just one of those things where more in the last five, six years we’d see each other more often, for whatever reason,” Trottier said.
But Nolan called Trottier this spring looking for help contacting an assistant coach candidate.
Over several conversations, Nolan noticed Trottier, who hadn’t coached since the New York Rangers fired him just months into his first head job in 2002-03, had an itch to get back in the NHL.
“It was kind of fun, because when he brought it up, he said, ‘I got a question for you, do you want to get back in it?’” Trottier said. “I said, ‘Oh, player development, I’d love to help you in player development, work with your young kids or whatever.’”
Nolan told Trottier he wanted him to be a regular assistant coach. Trottier, while honored, had reservations. Nolan told Trottier, who was living in Pittsburgh, to think it over.
“I wanted to make sure I could do the job, I was prepared work the hours and bring something to the table,” Trottier said.
Trottier accepted the job a few days later.
“I was kind of hungry to get back in, but not at the coaching level,” Trottier said. “I really wanted to get back into the player development level and work with the young kids, and recognizing that Buffalo has a lot of young kids was another little key in the excitement that hopefully it’ll all work out. I’m enthused about the whole thing. ‘Re-energized’ is probably the better word.”
Trottier said getting back into coaching is “like riding a bike.”
“I mean, (Nolan) kind of sold me really well,” he said. “His confidence was kind of the convincing thing.”
Of course, there have been adjustments. Trottier spent the first week of training camp “recognizing the lingo all over again.”
“That was a huge adjustment, because there’s so many new catchphrases in the game now that I haven’t been around for a while,” he said.
Other than that, the transition has gone smoothly. Trottier, who scored 524 goals and 1,425 points over his illustrious career, is in charge of the power play.
Trottier has quickly earned the players’ respect.
“He always seems to have a positive attitude,” Sabres winger Matt Moulson said. “He brings that to the rink every day. He always has a little bit of advice for us. When he talks to you, you always listen. He’s been through it all.”
Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers added: “Whenever you have that many Stanley Cups, it’s hard not to focus a little bit more and your attention is a little stronger when he speaks.”
Nolan believes Trottier possesses a quiet “don’t-mess-that-guy” aura.
“You can understand why he won the Stanley Cup seven times,” he said. “He’s a quiet, very intelligent, intense individual that players love to be around and listen to and gain a little bit of knowledge of. Brian gives a little tip here and there. …
“Here’s a guy with vast experience, and he’s talking from a winning background, not talking about I’ve been in the game for X amount of years. He’s been in the league for a long time and he’s won.”