Sabre Coach Ted Nolan Worked Hard to Overcome Poverty, Prejudice and a History of Hopelessness

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He lived amid poverty and submission, in a place where ambitions died young and self-esteem disappeared as quickly as six-packs.

Among Ted Nolan's earliest memories is holding his uncle's trembling hand through a siege of delirium tremors; nearly all of Nolan's 11 siblings succumbed to the alcoholism and hopelessness that ravaged the Garden River reservation in northwestern Ontario, home to about 800 Native Americans.

Electricity was a luxury, and not until he was 16 did his home have indoor plumbing. "You look in your fridge, there's not much in it," said Nolan, a full-blooded Ojibway Indian. "A can of Carnation milk and a couple of other things, not much."

Nolan escaped the despair that trapped so many of his people, cracking the NHL as a player and this season, as coach of the Buffalo Sabres. He made a decision "real early" not to let alcohol drown his dreams, but he couldn't completely tune out its siren song.

"I slipped into it a little bit while I was growing up. Everybody goes through a period like that in their life," he said. "I didn't want to be like that. Whether I became an NHL coach wasn't the issue. Being the best person I could possibly be and working hard at what I do were important. I just happened to be a hockey player.

"I had to work my behind off just in order to stay here. I didn't go to a hockey school, and I didn't have fancy equipment and didn't play on traveling teams. I had to find a way to do it, and that's what I try to do with my teams. I try to get them to find a way to do it. There's always a way to do things. I wasn't the most skilled, so I had to rough it up. I had to fight. That's the way I made it."

When a back injury ended his career after 78 NHL games, he became coach of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, his old junior team. In his last three seasons, he won three Ontario Hockey League titles and in his final season won the Memorial Cup, Canada's junior hockey championship. He became an assistant coach with the Hartford Whalers in the 1994-95 season, a good entry on his resume when he applied for the Sabre coaching job last summer.

After the Sabres collected high-salaried stars but failed miserably in the playoffs, executives cut the club's payroll and brought in kids. They also pressured John Muckler to give up coaching and limit himself to being general manager. The new coach would have to unite a team of strangers, woo back disenchanted fans and win enough games to create a demand for seats at the Marine Midland Arena, the 20,000-seat lakefront palace that will be the Sabres' home next season.

Where others saw obstacles, Nolan, 37, saw opportunity. His enthusiasm and vision shone through a field of 50 candidates. "He was so honest, so straightforward. We knew he fit the kind of team and kind of town we are," said Doug Moss, the Sabres' president. "He came in and talked to [Moss and Muckler] for two hours like we knew him all our lives and he knew us all his life. After he left, Muck turned to me and said, 'I think we have our man.'

"He really believes in himself. He came from a background where people said, 'You can't do this and that.' He showed people they were wrong."

The 10th of 12 children, Nolan has defied the odds all his life.

His father, Stan, died when Nolan was 14. His mother, Rose, was killed by a drunk driver when he was 21. They couldn't buy him skates, so he wore oversized hand-me-downs. He and his friends made their ice rink by carrying water from a well a bucket at a time and flooding an area behind his house. He couldn't afford to join a health club, so when he wanted to pump iron, he made a barbell out of a stick weighted with loaded pails at either end.

When he began running to build his stamina, his neighbors mocked him because it "wasn't cool." To avoid them, he ran at night. After encountering too many unseen tree branches, he retreated to the woods. "I ran on the railroad tracks. I knew I had to get my feet quicker, so I ran between the ties and I walked on the railroad track itself," he said. "I'd walk there for about a mile for balance. I created my own workout program."

Although his parents couldn't give him a car, they gave him an appreciation for his heritage. He learned the ancient customs, danced in traditional clothing and portrayed Hiawatha in a play staged during the annual powwow. He still sees a medicine man when he's on the reservation, where he keeps a home. People there call him "the migrating bird," because he leaves for the winter and returns every summer.

"My Native background is very essential to who I am," he said, "and my father instilled in me, 'Be tough. Don't let anyone push you. Fight for what you believe in. Don't be ashamed of who you are.'

"You don't have to have the best clothes. I had one pair of jeans that I wore for a year. I had hand-me-down shirts. But to me, I had the best of what they had to offer, and that's all you can ask for."

They never taught him about racism, but there was little need. He heard some remarks as a child, when he went to school in Sault Ste. Marie, but he stuck with his pals from the reservation and few people bothered them. He first felt the sting of spiteful taunts when he was 16 and playing on a junior team in Kenora, a town in western Ontario. Equally offensive was the intolerance he faced when officials of the Sault Ste. Marie junior team ordered him to cut his hair, which he had kept long for ceremonial dancing.

"It was really, really cruel. I was told to believe in who I was and never be afraid, but I was afraid," he said. "I wanted to go home. I was crying almost every night for the first three weeks I was [in Kenora]. I was homesick. I was a 16-year-old boy and also facing all the prejudice and racism out there was tough to handle."

His mother wouldn't let him come home. Nor would she let him rebel against his coaches.

"A lot of things happened to our parents as far as mistreatment of native people throughout North America," Nolan said. "It left their self-esteem so low that when somebody told them to do something, they did it. But there's a new generation coming up, and I'm part of it. I want to be respected for who I am. I can make my own decisions. No one is going to dictate, 'You've got to live in a government-bought house,' or tell my son how to live."

He doesn't dictate to his players or use his history as a motivational tool. He could easily tell them he overcame great obstacles, therefore they should overcome deficits in games, but that would trivialize his life. He speaks with quiet assurance, urging players to seek the positive in every situation instead of bemoaning what they lack.

"He's a good motivator and he has different ways to get his point across," defenseman Charlie Huddy said.

The Sabres, who play the Mighty Ducks at the Pond tonight, are eight points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and it has been a struggle for Nolan to keep them that close. To pare their payroll, Sabre executives considered trading their best players, Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Dominik Hasek and center Pat LaFontaine, moves that would make Nolan's job all but impossible.

Nolan says he'd like to have another goal-scorer, but he can do nothing. To compensate for a lack of skill, he stresses a physical style--the Sabres lead the NHL in penalty minutes--and consistent effort. If management isn't listening to him, at least his players are.

"I think your background comes out in what you do and doesn't have to be talked about," defenseman Garry Galley said. "What he's done and the life he's had, it comes out in his personality. It's a compliment to his way of doing things. It's not like your grandfather telling you, 'I had to walk through the snow with no shoes to get to school and when I got there, there was no heat.'

"He doesn't pull any punches. He comes right after you, and I don't mean that in the negative sense. He pushes us hard, and he expects the team to work hard, win or lose. He's done a good job of getting that from us."

Said LaFontaine: "He definitely has the respect of all the guys in the room. The guys are very supportive of what he does and what he says. He's fair, and his biggest qualities are his honesty and his sincerity and his heart. He wants to win. What you see is what you get in Teddy Nolan, and that's a compliment to him."

Nolan has goals beyond winning the Stanley Cup. Someday, he wants to be an advocate for Native people and fight for those who can't stand up for themselves. He makes 35 to 40 speeches every summer on behalf of the Canadian government, imploring kids to stay away from drugs and alcohol and live productive lives. Speechmaking didn't come naturally, but he found the courage.

"I couldn't public speak until I was 25 years old. I couldn't speak in front of three people," he said.

"But I had to find a way to do it because I want to be a politician in Canadian Native politics later on in life, and you have to get up and speak to try to improve the quality of life around you. I got literally sick. I had to force myself to speak.

"That's why when I meet people who say people can't do something, it drives me bananas. You may be in a certain situation where you can't do something, but it doesn't mean you can't ever do it. You can find a way."

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