By Kevin Prise
BUFFALO — The Buffalo Sabres finally earned their first home win of the season on Tuesday evening. But it wasn't nearly enough to save the jobs of those in charge of the hockey operation, who led the team to the bottom of the National Hockey League to this point in the 2013-14 season.
Sabres owner Terry Pegula announced sweeping changes to the organization on Wednesday morning. General manager Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston have been relieved of their duties, while Pat LaFontaine has been announced as president of hockey operations. Ted Nolan has been named interim head coach.
Pegula and team president Ted Black introduced LaFontaine and Nolan at a news conference at First Niagara Center. LaFontaine said that he has already compiled a short list of candidates for the team's general manager position, and had high praise for Nolan, one of his head coaches during his time in the NHL.
"I've seen it firsthand; there's no one that can bring a locker room together and players in the locker room together better than Ted Nolan," LaFontaine said.
Nolan coached the Sabres during the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons, when they took the mantra of "The Hardest Working Team in Hockey." During the 1996-97 season, the team won the Northeast Division with 92 points, and Nolan was named the NHL Coach of the Year.
However, Nolan left the Sabres the following summer after a strange series of events. New general manager Regier offered Nolan a one-year contract, saying a year was needed for the two to get to know each other. Insulted, Nolan rejected the offer, and Regier didn't offer another one.
Now, more than 16 years later, Regier is gone, and Nolan is back.
Nolan was emotional at points during the press conference on Wednesday, saying he didn't know if he would ever have a chance to coach again in the NHL. He promised to give the job everything he had, saying he doesn't want to let the city of Buffalo down, and that the city deserves a winner.
"Hopefully we can bring some credibility back to this organization," Nolan said. "I'm looking forward to it. There was a point when I never thought I would have a chance again to coach in the NHL. If I had a crystal ball and could have one place to coach again, this would be one of them."
LaFontaine said he would be working closely with assistant GM Kevin Devine to take the responsibility of making player moves, while looking for a new full-time general manager. A short list of candidates has not been announced, but is speculated to include former New York Islanders general manager Neil Smith (who worked with LaFontaine and Nolan for a short stint in New York), former Sabre Rick Dudley, and current Pittsburgh assistant GM Jason Botterill, who ended his playing career as a member of the AHL's Rochester Americans.
Nolan was given interim title (rather than full-time), in light of the total-overhaul nature of the Sabres' rebuilding process, LaFontaine said. The new president of hockey operations said he knows that the entire organization is in a state of flux, from top to bottom, and implied that this isn't the time to make long-term commitments. The rest of the season will take a wait-and-see feel, and the yet-to-be-determined new general manager will play a large role in the decision of whether to keep Nolan long-term or look for a new head coach.
Nolan is tasked with inspiring the team to give a consistent effort, night in and night out.
"I'm going to come in guns-a-blazin' and try to get to know the team as quick as I can, and change the culture of the team as soon as I can," Nolan said.
At many times during the press conference, Pegula was questioned about why it took so long to fire Regier, in light of the team's recent string of failures. Pegula responded by saying he tries not to make rash decisions, and that he always tries to give people a chance to overcome their mistakes.
Pegula also added that he doesn't want people to act as if Regier ruined the franchise, thanking the crestfallen GM for his nearly-two decades of service to the team and the city.
Regier is sure to go down in Sabres lore, in a variety of positive and negative lights. After all, it was Regier who brought in Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, and also Regier who let them go.
"Darcy had a heck of a run," Pegula said. "It's not like he was a failure."
The LaFontaine-Nolan era begins tonight, with the Sabres hosting Toronto in the first game of a weekend home-and-home series with the Maple Leafs.