ON JULY 18, as the shocking news spread that Islanders owner Charles Wang had fired G.M. Neil Smith just six weeks into Smith's tenure and replaced him with Garth Snow, the team's backup goaltender, Steve Nolan couldn't resist calling his brother Ted, who'd been hired as the Islanders' coach around the same time as Smith. "So you didn't even take 40 days to kill this G.M.," Steve joked.
In his previous coaching job, with the Buffalo Sabres, Ted had clashed during the 1996--97 season with G.M. John Muckler, whose subsequent firing left Nolan with a reputation as a coach who was a backstabber. It didn't seem to matter that Nolan was out of a job shortly after Muckler was booted, despite having been named the NHL coach of the year. It would be nine years before Nolan would make it back to the NHL.
Nolan's supporters say the Native Canadian has been a victim of rumors and racism. What's more, they say, Nolan is a players' coach who has an uncommon ability to turn marginal players into dependable regulars. His detractors insist that Nolan overplays his victimization.
This much is certain: Nolan has a daunting task trying to fix the Islanders, a team that hasn't won a playoff series since 1993. (The Isles were off to a 4-4-2 start at week's end.) He faces long odds, but he has beaten them before, as a member of the First Nations Ojibway tribe who played three seasons in the NHL.
When he was named the Sabres' coach in 1995, it was a special thrill for him because of his heritage. "I was a kid from the reservation coaching against Scotty Bowman," says Nolan. "I was proud of that."
In his second year the Sabres reached the second round of the playoffs thanks to several unheralded players who had career years. But Muckler had a preference for speedy Europeans, and Nolan favored scrappy "character guys." When Dominik Hasek, Buffalo's All-Star Czech goalie and a Muckler favorite, missed several playoff games with a questionable knee injury, the rift between coach and G.M. widened.
That spring the Sabres fired Muckler and replaced him with Darcy Regier, and the rumor started that Nolan was responsible. "Ridiculous," says Nolan. "I was a second-year coach. I didn't have the power to fire anyone."
That was soon evident. Despite his coach-of-the-year honors, Nolan was offered only a one-year contract by Regier. Nolan found it insulting and walked away from the Sabres, never thinking it would be nearly a decade before he'd return.
He did get an offer from Tampa Bay in 1997, but he turned it down. Nolan says his two sons were so upset at the thought of not being able to play junior hockey in Florida that "I told the team it wasn't right."
Meanwhile other rumors dogged Nolan. "People said I didn't show up for work, that I was an alcoholic, [that] I play the race card—all the stereotypes, all not true," he says. "Alcoholic. That hurt the most."
Nolan's mother, Rose, had been killed by a drunk driver and his sister Katie died of liver disease. When Nolan was a coach for Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League in 1991--92, he stood by forward Chris Simon, a fellow Ojibwan who now plays for the Islanders and credits Nolan with helping him overcome his alcohol problem. "I was messed up," Simon admits. "When I played for Ted, he gave me a curfew. I had to call him at nine wherever I was. Years later I realized he was always there [for me], to take that call. It's a dream come true to play for him again."
After taking a post last season with Moncton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and leading the Wildcats to the Canadian junior finals, Nolan finally got an offer he liked, from the Islanders, in June. At the time, he was visiting the Long Island home of Pat LaFontaine, who had been his captain in Buffalo.
"There is not a player who played for Teddy who wouldn't go through a wall for him," LaFontaine says. "He took a lot of blame for things he didn't deserve."
Almost a third of the teams in the NHL have a new coach this season. In addition to Nolan, here are eight others who have started new jobs behind the bench.