It didn't happen that often but every now and then, over the last 16 years, we would get a call from a frustrated Sabres fan who would bring up the idea of getting Ted Nolan back as head coach. I would then proceed to get upset and strongly advise the caller to "stop living in the past" and "get over it because he's never coming back". Oops!
So maybe the Sabres will win a Stanley Cup in my lifetime and the Bills will win a Super Bowl. If asked, I might have said we'd have a better chance of that happening than Nolan ever stepping behind the Sabres bench again.
Yet that's exactly where the winner of the 1997 Jack Adams Trophy for NHL Coach of the Year, will be tonight. 16 years, six months and four days after his last game behind the Sabres bench. For the record it was May 11, 1997 and the Sabres were just eliminated from the playoffs by the Philadelphia Flyers.
I have no idea how the return of Nolan and the hiring of Sabres and NHL Hall of Famer Pat Lafontaine as President of Hockey Operations will turn out but I do know I feel good about the Sabres again. Tonight marks the first time all season I've been excited about a Sabres game.
I think you've probably gotten to the point where you could handle the losing, or the suffering if you will, as long as the rebuilding plan paid off but you could never get to the point where you could believe Ron Rolston was the right coach to lead the way and Darcy Regier was the best General Manager to fix this mess. BIG problem solved in one fell swoop.
The moves are being greeted with some skepticism, that perhaps this is just about public relations and winning a fan base back. First off, there's nothing wrong with winning a fan base back. From a PR standpoint, I don't know how the Sabres could have done any better than bring back a beloved player whose number hangs in the rafters of the First Niagara Center and an incredibly popular coach who fans felt was done wrong by the organization.
It remains to be seen who Lafontaine will entrust with the GM job but he brings instant credibility back to the organization at a time when national observers keep saying the Sabres have become an embarrassment. This is exactly what they did in Boston when the Bruins brought back Cam Neely and gave him the title of Team President.
If you're looking for someone who can convince free agents to come to Buffalo or get agents to convince their clients to play for the Sabres, the Lafontaine name will certainly carry weight.
As far as Nolan goes, I don't think you should expect to see the brawling bunch of Sabres who played under Nolan during his first stint in town. He doesn't have Rob Ray, Bob Boughner, Brad May and Mathew Barnaby on the roster. But we should expect to see a team that lays it all out on the ice instead of the team that looks like it sleepwalks through the first period every game.
There's no question Nolan's greatest strength is his ability to motivate players but don't forget his roots in coaching were in the junior ranks so he knows what its like to work with young players. It sure seemed the veteran players had checked out on Rolston and the young players were looking around at the older guys and wondering whose lead should they follow. Nolan should be able to solve all of that and effectively pull the room back together.
The bottom line is the Sabres have given you some hope. You can absolutely make the argument that giving us hope as opposed to wins and championships is what the Sabres and Bills do all the time but having hope with the Sabres now, is a lot better than where we were three days ago.