Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

The Story of Ted Nolan's NHL Redemption

Ted Nolan was voted NHL coach of the year nine years ago. But it took him years to find another job as a coach after he left the Buffalo Sabres. He got a second chance when he was hired to coach the New York Islanders. He has managed to bring the team from the bottom of the league to near the top.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commentator Frank Deford has the story of another man giving back and getting back.

FRANK DEFORD: This is not really a Christmas story, but it is a good story for Christmastime. Nine years ago, Ted Nolan was sitting on top of the world. Not yet 40, his Buffalo Sabres won their division and Nolan was voted NHL Coach of the Year. And then the bottom fell out. He crossed swords with his general manager and felt he had to quit. After all, given his success, Nolan was sure some other team would snap him up. But nobody did. He was labeled a general manager killer. And then he would hear the other rumors that were bubbling up.

Ted Nolan was a drunk. He was lazy. He was a womanizer. Of course, he'd heard these characterizations before - not about himself, but about his people. Nolan, you see, is an Ojibway Indian, what we in the United States call a Native American, what Canadians call First Nation.

He'd grown up on the Garden River reservation in Ontario, facing the terrible despair so common to the Ojibway. In fact, even as Nolan was becoming a hockey prospect, he was himself trapped in the same dispiriting life.

When I visited him on the reservation a few years ago, he told me about being at a teenage party where almost all his friends passed out drunk. One of the other guys still on his feet saluted Nolan. You're a good drinker, Ted. It made the boy think. The last thing I wanted was to be known as a good drinker, he said. Instead, he bore down, made the NHL, and then became a coach. Still the only Indian to earn that job in any major North American sport.

When, after he left the Sabres and began to realize that nobody else would hire him, he had to wonder if he was being blackballed because of his race. He didn't know. But with no other offers, he decided to turn back to his people to devote himself to helping Ojibway children, so many who give up so early who become addicts.

So the NHL Coach of the Year began teaching hockey to children not to produce any professional players but just to show the Indian kids, through sport, how to work together, how to concentrate, to improve, even maybe to dream. Life skill training, Nolan describes it.

Pat LaFontaine, Nolan's star at Buffalo, says, there isn't a player who played for Teddy who wouldn't go through a wall for him. Now, though, Nolan only wanted his First Nation players just to live, to grow into men.

Each year passed with more coaches getting NHL jobs. Nolan figured if he wasn't blackballed, he must be forgotten. Then last year he was offered a job coaching in the Quebec Junior League. Once again, he was a success, taking his team to the Canadian Junior Finals.

And this year, Charles Wang hired Nolan to coach his New York Islanders. The Islanders are a dysfunctional franchise. They haven't gotten past the first round of the playoffs in 14 years. The experts pick them to finish at the very bottom of the league. Instead, Nolan has his team well over .500, not far off the lead in the Atlantic division.

It's a good Christmas for Ted Nolan, now that he's back where he deserves to be.

INSKEEP: Comments from Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated, who deserves to join us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford