By Leo Roth Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
Shortly after the news conference on Wednesday announcing that a stick of dynamite was lit under the Buffalo Sabres, new president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine and newly named interim head coach Ted Nolan left to meet with the players.
That must have been some meeting.
LaFontaine, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame whose retired No. 16 Sabres sweater hangs from the rafters of the First Niagara Center, now overseeing hockey decisions.
Nolan, a former Rochester Amerks player and executive, back behind the bench where his NHL coaching career blossomed and wilted all in the span of two memorable seasons 17 long years ago.
Talk about surreal. You probably could've heard a roll of tape hit the ground.
Sabres owner Terry Pegula by his own admission is very loyal to his employees, at times to a fault. Clearly, the decision to stick with general manager Darcy Regier for nine months following the firing of coach Lindy Ruff was one of those instances.
Buffalo is 4-15-1, including 1-8-1 on home ice, for a league-low nine points. The team has a league-low 36 goals. Superman did better with Kryptonite than a Sabre does stickhandling and shooting a puck.
Thus came the Great Buffalo Blowup that cost Regier and coach Ron Rolston their jobs. After Regier put in motion (not all by himself mind you) a fire-sale-for-draft-picks game plan to rebuild the Sabres, Rolston was in a no-win situation. So was Regier, whose final big move that sent Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders for Matt Moulson and two more top picks merely prolonged the inevitable.
In the end, it was just time and Pegula scored points for having the gumption to finally act like an owner and not a fan. Better late than never.
"One thing I've done my whole life when I work with people, I dedicate all my efforts to try and make them successful," said Pegula, who made billions in the energy business. "I give people a chance and work with them. I said to Pat when he came in, 'One thing you should find comforting is that you can see the way I hang in with my people. In other words, your first mistake, you're not out.' "
No, LaFontaine will get many mulligans taking over a team that's missed the playoffs two seasons in a row. Sabres fans can only hope he hits the mark on hirings and firings as often as he hit the net on way to scoring 468 career goals.
LaFontaine's first order of business will be tabbing a general manager then figuring out with the new hire how to spend all those draft picks Regier stockpiled. It will be a slow, calculated rebuilding job - the same as it would've been had Regier stayed.
But after 17 seasons of Regier, the hockey bag needed to be unzipped and aired out. LaFontaine, 48, has no real track record as a team executive. But nobody in hockey is more respected or connected. As a face for the franchise, he is Mt. Rushmore.
The fact he instantly called his old coach, Nolan, to take over a locker room in disarray only adds to the intrigue and makes the rest of this season worth watching. Nolan left Buffalo amid much controversy after leading the Sabres to a 40-30-12 record and division title in 1996-97 and earning NHL coach of the year honors.
Now the man who let Nolan go (Regier) was himself let go and Nolan was brought back. That's surreal with a capital "S."
Nolan's "interim" label is as it should be. If the Sabres are truly going to be a "top to bottom" operation with everyone pulling together, then the new GM should get a say in who the full-time coach is going to be. It could very well be the popular Nolan.
"Like Pat said, I believe things happen for a reason," Nolan said. "Am I a different person? I think we're all different. With my experiences, I'm better prepared for this job than I've ever been."
The phrase "culture change" was tossed out by many on the dais. That's code for "losing is starting to manifest itself inside these walls." What it means exactly is a difficult thing to describe and LaFontaine stumbled a bit.
"Anytime you bring in new leadership, you prepare the troops that we're going in a new direction," he said. "We have to be patient, smart and be selective and it won't happen overnight. But I'll say this: our vision is to have a championship caliber team year after year and we will get there."
If so, the Great Buffalo Blowup will be remembered fondly. The day Terry Pegula, Mr. Patient, lit a stick of dynamite under his team. Sure worked discovering gas wells.