Coaching hockey, and life
All coaches like to consider themselves educators beyond hockey skills, but in most cases their overall life experience limits how much they can effectively teach their athletes.
And then there’s Ted Nolan, who grew up in poverty on a northern Ontario Ojibwa First Nations Reserve, endured unconcealed hatred from outsiders and even his teammates, played major junior hockey with Wayne Gretzky, made it to the NHL as a player, and later as a coach of the Buffalo Sabres (twice) and the New York Islanders, won two OHL championships coaching Soo Greyhounds and Quebec junior league title in Moncton, faced apparent ostracization by the NHL partly for his heritage and partly for publicly sparring with Sabres’ general manager John Muckler, has given countless hours supporting Indigenous People’s causes including the North American Indigenous Games, and spent three years steering the Latvian national hockey team in exactly the right direction.
Think he could teach hockey players a thing or two about their game … and about life?
“I am who I am because of where I was raised and how I was raised,” Nolan told The Spectator Thursday afternoon.
“Not feeling so welcome in certain places as a kid, makes me want to help people and to make them feel accepted. It’s why I coach.”
The latest benefactors of Nolan’s bitterly-earned insight are the players of the Polish national men’s hockey team. They’re in town, with Nolan as their head coach, to play the Stoney Creek Generals, at Gateway Ice Centre Friday night.
“It’s a three-year project but I always think things can be done a little quicker,” he says.
“We played our first tournament in Hungary and won it, and they hadn’t won a tournament in three years. We brought the guys over here and they’re seeing how our hockey programs are run. They can see how the game is played over here.”
After playing the Generals, Team Poland is leaving for Atlantic Canada and will train on the international-size ice at the University of New Brunswick and use their training facilities to teach things which Nolan says hockey-familiar Canadians take for granted, like angling and separating the man from the puck.
Polish hockey officials, impressed by the manner in which Nolan lifted Latvia from the B world hockey pool into the A group, and from there into an eventual 11thplace finish at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, approached Nolan last spring, hoping he could do the same thing for them. Poland hasn’t been in the A Pool for 17 years.
“I had such a great experience in Latvia, and this is the same kind of opportunity,” he says. “Latvia and making it to Sochi was probably one of the highlights so far of my coaching career.”
Poland can reach the world A pool by winning a tournament next spring and Nolan, who subscribes to “the power of belief,” thinks they can do it. Federation officials want to make sure there is strong Polish ancestry in their players but Nolan and his staff are also looking for North American players of Polish heritage. Goalie John Murray grew up in Pennsylvania, for instance.
But 20 of the 25 players here for the Stoney Creek game have never been to North America before, so Nolan is making sure it’s an educational experience. After practice Thursday, the entire team toured Niagara Falls and Thursday night they were to be treated to a traditional welcome at Six Nations, led by Chief Ava Hill.
When they head to the Maritimes, they’ll encounter the same cultural hospitality at St. Mary’s First Nation, where Nolan’s sisterin-law is the chief.
Nolan and his sons Jordan and Brandon were the official spokesman for the North American Indigenous Games last summer and says, “It’s time for reconciliation to begin. And if I can do my little part to help, in sports, I will.
“A lot of things I’ve been able to do are because of what I went through when I was young. When I was 16 and playing for Kenora Thistles Junior A team, I cried myself to sleep every night for months because of what I went through. Even the players I was playing with didn’t want me there. I’d had namecalling before but I’ve never seen anything like this, the things that were said.
“Even to this day my wife asks, ‘What made you stay?’ And the only thing I could up with was that my mom and dad had told me how awful it was with the residential schools and how they came and took people away. And that made me want to fight through it all.”
The Polish National Hockey Team practised Thursday in Stoney Creek, under the watchful eye of coach Ted Nolan.