Coach­ing hockey, and life

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE MIL­TON

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.”

BARRY GRAY, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

The Pol­ish Na­tional Hockey Team prac­tised Thurs­day in Stoney Creek, un­der the watch­ful eye of coach Ted Nolan.

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