After beginning his coaching career in the NHL as an assistant coach of the Hartford Whalers in 1994, Ted Nolan took over the head coaching position for the Buffalo Sabres in the following season. In his second season with the Sabres, he won the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year. His NHL career took a pause after that until he coached the New York Islanders from 2006 to 2008. In August of 2011, Nolan was named head coach of Team Latvia.
Nolan is coaching the Latvian squad at the 2012 World Championship and spoke to Hockey's Future for this Q&A.
Hockey’s Future: Coach Nolan, this is your first job as the head coach of a national team. How has it been different to your previous coaching experience with various NHL and junior teams?
Ted Nolan: Not too different actually. My main focus as a hockey coach is to get the players to play the best hockey they’re capable of. Whether the players are from Latvia or Canada or wherever they’re from, it’s the same thing. These men are hockey players and they’ve got to learn to play at a consistent level. It’s different in one facet, namely that there was of course a language barrier, but outside of that, hockey is a universal language. You’ve got a board where you draw pictures and diagrams. Outside of that, I am just loving the experience. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in hockey.
HF: More than half of the team is playing in the KHL or the MHL. Has that been a big challenge for you bringing a North American style to a bunch of guys who have grown up with the Russian style of play?
TN: Well, it’s a different mindset. In North America, you kind of have that north and south game. It’s straight forward. You bring pucks and bodies to the net. You crash the net. You chip pucks into the corners and then chase and check. Here it’s a little more about criss-crossing and making long, rink-wide passes. It’s a little difficult for me to get used to it, because those are turnover zones. You grow up not doing that in North America and over here, it’s exactly what they do. It’s good to now mix the styles of play and find a happy medium to make for a good brand of hockey.
HF: You’ve coached some Russians in the past, namely players like Viktor Kozlov and Alexei Yashin with the New York Islanders. Are these players you may still have a relationship with who might call you up to let you know what awaits you in Eastern Europe and what you should expect to encounter?
TN: You know what, I did speak to some players in Canada about their European experiences. I’ve coached players like the aforementioned Kozlov and Yashin and also Alexei Zhitnik. I watched Mogilny a lot back in Buffalo and talked to Pat Lafontaine about what he’s like and what made him tick. I’ve done some research on them, but my main focus here has been on the players I have. It’s too hard figuring out what everyone else is doing versus the concerns of the team I’m with and concentrating on now.
HF: Latvia is a bit of special place with only 2.2 million people. The pool of players just isn’t as large as it is in other countries. It’s amazing that Latvia has been able to achieve as much as it has over the course of time. Still, you have a number of kids in the line-up at the time who are 23 or younger. Do you feel it’s absolutely vital for the program that these kids be worked in and start gathering their experience or are they truly the best options you have at the moment?
TN: Yep, you know what; it is questionable whether an older player could have taken their job and done it better. First of all, I’m currently very impressed with the talent pool that a country like Latvia has. I think they only have like 1900 registered players in the entire country. I’m from a small town in northern Ontario that might have more than that. It’s incredible that they’ve maintained their spot in the A pool throughout the years. I’m very impressed with it. I just spoke to the board yesterday and we discussed some of the younger guys we’ve got right now. Take a look at Mikelis Redlihs, who is only 27. Take a look at Guntis Galvins who is in his mid-twenties. Take a look at number 70, Miks Indrasis, who is just 20 or 21 years old. We’ve got a bunch of kids and two or three of them are likely to get drafted this year. We have Kristians Pelss, who was drafted by Edmonton the year before. We have a good combination of talented 17-year-old up-andn-comers like Teodors Bluegers and guys who are 24 or 22 now. In five or six years’ time, I think Latvia will be putting together a pretty doggone good team.
HF: And hopefully you’ll still be leading the way.
TN: Well, I sure hope so.