Terry Pegula is a people person. We know this because he mentions it about as frequently as the Buffalo Sabres fumbled the puck away during one of their 15 losses in 20 games this season.
“When I work with people, I dedicate all my efforts to try to make them successful,” said the Sabres owner on Wednesday, attempting to explain why GM Darcy Regier and head coach Ron Rolston were given 20 games to sink the franchise into embarrassment this season, before admitting, “Why now? I just decided. That’s the only answer I can give you.”
Well, not the only answer. “When you’re a people person, you gotta meet a people you like, and somebody that you think is capable” before getting rid of other people, said Pegula.
You people understand?
Pat LaFontaine? He’s good people. Humanitarian. Hockey Hall of Famer. Six-year Buffalo Sabres star, including a 53-goal season in 1992-93, before concussions issues limited him and eventually led to his retirement in 1998.
"I think everything about Pat's background and life in hockey positions him to have success in this job, He's loyal and committed and extremely passionate about the game and its future," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly in an email, as LaFontaine worked under him in the NHL front office this season. "Pat and I spent a lot of quality time together discussing the game, albeit in an abbreviated time period. I love his perspective and have no doubt he will be able to achieve his goals."
Turns out concussions ended one phase of LaFontaine’s life and led to the start of another.
Pegula said he met LaFontaine during an impromptu discussion about concussions and was blown away by the former Sabre’s knowledge, comportment and charisma. When the time came to fire Darcy Regier, Pegula thought about the people for the job, and LaFontaine’s name was at the forefront.
But LaFontaine didn’t want to be general manager, because he was short on experience – he had worked in the NHL offices this season, but before that his only managerial involvement was 40 days as an unpaid advisor to the New York Islanders in 2006, which led to a bitter resignation when Neil Smith was fired as GM and Garth Snow, who is still in the job, was hired.
The Islanders brought on LaFontaine for much the same reason the Sabres have turned to him now: good vibrations. He’s a beloved alumnus of the team.
(How beloved? LaFontaine told a story on Wednesday about a border crossing guard who checked him into the U.S. from Canada this week. Upon seeing his driver’s license, he said, “You should be running the Sabres.” LaFontaine: “And I said maybe that’ll happen one day.”)
The Islanders reached to their past to bring in LaFontaine in an effort to change the conversation about their franchise, which was spiraling around the toilet at the time. They also hired a coach on the same day LaFontaine was announced:
Ted Nolan was his name.
So once again, Nolan and LaFontaine are introduced for a franchise that’s reached its nadir, the hope being their nostalgic popularity – which Pegula craves like a Toronto mayor to the pipe – and fresh outlook can reset the team’s fortunes.
While Pegula said no man is an emperor, LaFontaine’s hiring establishes him as the man in charge of the rebuild.
Nolan, however, is just a caretaker.
Why the “interim” tag? Obviously whenever a team is searching for a general manager, as the Sabres will be soon, they typically don’t saddle that GM with a coach he didn’t hire. Because that coach will be fired in short order, so the GM can get his old college buddy or teammate in there (c’mon, it’s hockey).
But Ted Nolan isn’t exactly Mr. Popularity in NHL circles. While he has claimed racism kept him out of the League’s coaching ranks since his firing by the Islanders in 2008, there’s also a sense that he clashed with management.
Whatever the reason for his dismissal from Buffalo – let’s just say he and Dominik Hasek didn’t have marital bliss – Nolan’s return to the Sabres on Wednesday was an expectedly emotional one. He broke down in front of reporters when talking about how his family supported him.
“When Pat called me, I don’t know whether to cry or go to sleep,” said Nolan.
As for his hiring coming at the time of the firing of the man who canned him nearly 17 years ago: “Whatever happened it happened. We learn from our history. Darcy had to do what he did at the time,” he said.
“If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be there today.”
And if the Sabres hadn’t collapsed like Pat Kaleta had just boarded them, then neither LaFontaine nor Nolan would be there.
Along with Regier, coach Ron Rolston was fired for that collapse. This team was embarrassing at times, expectedly terrible for a rebuilding team at others.
It’s been rather repellant to see the revisionist history on Rolston, who earned the job with a 15-11-5 record last season after Lindy Ruff’s firing, and with Regier shipping out talent through the trade deadline. No one said, when the interim tag was lifted, that Rolston wasn’t ready for the NHL; the majority opinion from pundits around the league was that Rolston was a good guy earning his shot, and that he could be a good coach to work with young players in a rebuild.
Where did it change? The moment John Scott went after Phil Kessel, and Rolston was fileted by the Canadian press for his implicit role in the Sabres gooning it up.
So now instead of a guy who earned an NHL job, he was an amateurish clown that didn’t deserve one.
But obviously he was going to go, and he’s taken Regier with him. The Sabres have done what they should have done when Ruff was fired, which is hit the reset button for the franchise with new management.
OK, sorta new: The Sabres now have their moment of optimistic bliss, as former fan favorites ride in to save the day.
Sometimes they turn out to be Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy in Colorado; other times they turn out to be Brett Hull in Dallas.
However it works out, thus begins the planning for the future, and evaluating the present.
“The No. 1 thing I’ll be doing with the hockey team,” said Nolan, “is sitting down with the players and seeing what kind of people they are.”
What do you know … a people person.
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