Thursday, October 19, 2023

Review: Life in Two Worlds (2023)

By Ted Nolan with Meg Masters

One of the problems with big-time sports these days is that it is difficult to obtain explanations for behind-the-scenes activities even well after they happen. The money has gotten bigger, and the stakes have gotten higher. That's led to non-disclosure agreements in many cases, the equivalent of a gag order that would be costly if ever broken.

But sometimes, we do hear a version of what went on - even if takes a while. In this case, Ted Nolan gives his life story in th3e book, "Life in Two Worlds." And it's positively fascinating, particularly those who are old enough to remember a particular era of hockey.

The centerpiece of the book is the story of Nolan's time with the Buffalo Sabres. He was hired by the team after only one year as an assistant coach in the NHL in 1995. Nolan lasted two seasons in Buffalo, and it sometimes seemed like every day was a soap opera ... with the tension building as the end of his tenure approached. 

There's only a couple of chapters on this part of his life, but it's really the centerpiece of his hockey career. Nolan won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's coach of the year in 1996-97, only to lose his job that summer when he turned down something of a token contract offer from new general manager Darcy Regier. 

But there's one central fact to Nolan's first time around in Buffalo. John Muckler was kicked upstairs to be a general manager only after the 1995 season; he had been the coach as well before that. Basically, he wanted someone he could control as the head coach. Based on the book, I'm not sure Nolan realized that. But clashes were almost inevitable in that situation, and they eventually happened. 

Nolan writes about those unpleasant moments that in hindsight don't make a whole lot of sense. For example, Nolan became an instant fan of his best player, Pat LaFontaine, upon his arrival. Pat was the captain, and Ted was immediately impressed about how his star worked the room. That what made, and makes, it so puzzling that Muckler asked Nolan to strip LaFontaine of his captaincy. It's hard to know what happened between the GM and star. I do know that once when Muckler was asked about LaFontaine's leadership abilities, Muckler supposedly replied (more or less) than LaFontaine couldn't lead a prostitute to bed. 

Eventually, Nolan developed a reputation as a "player's coach." That usually meant he tried to be someone who took the time how to figure out what was best for the player and his development. Muckler was more old school, and thought a good screaming session was necessary every so often. Muckler asked Nolan to be tougher, and Nolan refused. It was a basic difference in philosophy that probably should have come up in the interview process.

Then early in the 1996-97 season, LaFontaine suffered a serious concussion on the ice. Nolan could see something was seriously wrong, even after some recovery time. Muckler tried to order Nolan to play LaFontaine, pointing out that Pat was cleared for play and was earning $5 million per year. Nolan wouldn't do it, saying LaFontaine wasn't healed. A few months later, a story circulated that Muckler wanted to fire Nolan and replace him with assistant coach Don Lever, but that the Sabres' front office told Muckler he'd have to coach too if wanted to make that change. So the idea died, and the frayed relationship between general manager and head coach continued. 

The team still played well under Nolan, winning a divisional championship. But the rift grew. In the book, Nolan said that an opposing general manager had said he was drunk on the bench at times. An exhausting season ended with the only Game Seven victory in Sabres' history (still true), and a second-round loss to Philadelphia. Then star goalie and league MVP Dominik Hasek added to the story by saying he didn't want to play for a coach in Nolan that he had no respect for. Nolan writes that has no idea where that came from - but he did hear all the rumors that he was having an affair with Hasek's wife. Bizarre stuff. 

Muckler exited right after the end of the playoffs, and Regier took over. He greeted Nolan in their first meeting without taking his feet off his desk. For someone who battled his entire life for respect, Nolan thought it got the relationship off to a horrible start. Nolan soon first heard from Buffalo News reporter Jim Kelley that he was going to be offered a one-year contract with no bonuses. Nolan eventually turned that down, and the Sabres eventually hired Lindy Ruff as coach. 

Nolan's luck wasn't much better when it came to his other coaching jobs. The Islanders hired him as a head coach in 2006 after a long gap from his first departure from the Sabres. But New York hired a new general manager in Garth Snow shortly after that, and GMs always like to have their own man in such an important job. Later on, Nolan returned to the Sabres as coach in 2013. But later Tim Murray was hired as GM. Murray was in the process of guiding a tank in an ill-fated attempt to land Connor McDavid in the draft, and that tank ruined just about everything it touched within the organization in those years. When Nolan wouldn't hire Murray's uncle, veteran hockey coach Bryan, for his coaching staff, Tim fired Ted - at least in Nolan's version here - in 2015. The in-between periods might have been even tougher for Nolan. From what I've heard, Ted was in a rather dark place at times, and did a couple of things in trying to find a coaching job that didn't go over well with the rest of the NHL coaching fraternity.  

This is all quite interesting to hockey fans, particularly for those who follow the Sabres. However, the rest of the book is quite well done as well. That might be the biggest surprise of the entire publication. 

Nolan overcame a lot to do as well as he could. The systemic problems of Native communities are quite well known, including such issues as poverty, racism and alcoholism. It's difficult for anyone to come from that environment into the world beyond the reservation and not be changed by it. Nolan was no exception. He came from a large family in Western Ontario, and has gone through more than his share of tragedy over the years. Nolan also has been a victim of stereotyping along the way, which was a large problem for Native players in hockey. But he overcame them, paid his dues, and reached the top of his profession. 

It's really difficult to read some of this material. Then again, it's really difficult to understand what people are thinking when they hand out abuse to someone because he or she is a member of a particular group. Nolan comes across as an innocent during his youth, sometimes fighting back and sometimes giving in to temptations like alcohol use and quitting. He even had to deal with insults and abuse from his own teammates - such as "What are you doing here, ya stinkin' Indian?" Fans might have been worse. To his credit, Ted battled his way up the hockey ladder as a player and as a coach. Nolan rightfully thanks several mentors here who helped him along the way.

Nolan is 65 now - seems impossible at first - and lately he's been working on a 3Nolans program that's designed to help the youth of First Nations make their way in society. Ted is helped by his two sons, Brandon and Jordan, who also were pro hockey players. It sounds like he's somewhat at peace by end of "Life in Two Worlds," although he'll always wonder what might have been in a different world. 

As will we.     

(Footnote: There is one story from the book that needs to be told here because I've never heard it anywhere else. Nolan was welcomed by a group of Native Elders to Buffalo. He writes,"Apparently,in the 1930s or 1940s, one of the best First Nations athletes in the area tried out for a Buffalo team, but because he was Indigenous the team wouldn't sign him. Upon hearing of this injustice, some of the Elders put a curse on all sports teams in the area. ... Now that I had arrived, however, these Elders told me they were going to remove the curse." Did someone put the curse back on?) 

Five stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)  

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