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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sabres sharpen their game

Win first time out under Nolan, LaFontaine

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ted Nolan really wanted tickets to see Book of Mormon on Broadway.

Pat LaFontaine has a guy who can make that happen, so he assured his former coach it wasn't a problem. Then, after learning he'd be taking over as the Buffalo Sabres' president of hockey operations, LaFontaine revived his role as a prankster from his playing days and told Nolan the theatre tickets for him and his family weren't happening.

Instead, he wanted Nolan to come back to the NHL and coach the Sabres.

"It was just total silence," LaFontaine recalled. "And he said, 'You're kidding me."'

LaFontaine wasn't kidding. As part of an organizational change on the fly that saw general manager Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston fired, Nolan took the job as coach for at least the rest of the season, which began Friday night with a 3-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

When LaFontaine called, Nolan felt similar emotions to his wedding day, the birth of his first child and his first game as an NHL head coach. He last coached in North America in 2008, so this was a special occasion.

"There are certain moments in your life that you'll always remember, and when Patty called me to inform me, that was one of those moments," Nolan said. "I did get very emotional."

Nolan fought back tears at the press conference commencing the LaFontaine era Wednesday, but since then he hasn't had time to be nervous. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native was more worried about going through the crash course of learning his players' names.

Hired and commended for his communication skills, that's a nice first step.

"What I think he's going to be able to do is be able to get an identity on the team because he was really good at that," said former Sabres goaltender Marty Biron, who played under Nolan in 1995-96. "He's such a strong motivator."

Motivating and teaching are two of Nolan's key duties for a Sabres team that is looking toward the future after a 4-15-1 start. LaFontaine will hire a new GM in the coming weeks and spend the rest of the year evaluating talent for the rebuild that is already underway.

LaFontaine chose Nolan to oversee the final 62 games from behind the bench because of what he showed in four seasons as an NHL head coach with Buffalo and the New York Islanders.

"He can relate to players. He's been through this," LaFontaine said. "You have to truly care about the players and connect with players and then find out what's the best way to get those players to perform individually and then collectively and then raise their standard."

The standard was set low early this season for the league-worst Sabres. Nolan knows it's impossible to erase the horrendous start, but a new voice is a good place to begin to turn things around.

"I'm not really too concerned of what they've done. I've never been. It's what we're going to do," Nolan said. "It's a new day, a new beginning. Let's start fresh."

So far, players are buying what Nolan's selling. The mood around the locker-room Friday morning was positive after an up-tempo morning skate, and captain Steve Ott said it felt like everyone had a "legitimate clean slate" under Nolan.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2013 C2

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