Returns of Nolan, LaFontaine a PR Move with Little Downside for Buffalo Sabres


Buffalo Sabres fans have long called for Ted Nolan to return as coach of the team.

Coach Ron Rolston’s days with the team were very obviously numbered during a dreadful start to the 2013-14 season that has seen the Sabres outplayed and outcoached at every turn. And with each loss, each questionable decision from the bench, the name of Ted Nolan was bandied about with even more ferocity on message boards.

So while it may be shocking to see his face on the ice again for Sabres practice, it’s really no surprise he is the man owner Terry Pegula and team president Ted Black have brought in to replace Rolston, a coach so bland that you either hated him or you forgot his name in between games.

Similarly, it’s no surprise another beloved name from Sabres past, Pat LaFontaine, is the man being brought in to take former general manager Darcy Regier’s seat at the table—even if he isn’t actually taking his title or role within the organization.

The additions of Nolan and LaFontaine may turn out to be good hockey moves for the Sabres, and they may eventually lead the team down the road to hockey’s promised land. But there’s no doubt that in the short term, the carefully calculated play has energized a Sabres fanbase that has been getting more and more apathetic about the team by the day.

The timing of the moveafter the team’s first home win in 10 tries this season, and just their fourth win in 20 games totalwas odd, indicating it has been in the works for quite some time. The game against Los Angeles Tuesday was the first off a week-long West Coast road trip, and a move of this magnitude couldn’t have been done while the team was flying home from California.

The pageantry of it all—Pegula and Black sitting on the dais at First Niagara Center, introducing familiar faces to Sabres fans with pomp and circumstance—is a public relations move with very little downside for the organization.

On social media, the organization has made a concerted effort to engage nostalgic fans—posting photos of Nolan and LaFontaine from the ’90s throughout the day Wednesday and changing the team’s official Facebook cover photo to text that reads, “Welcome Back! Pat & Ted.”

The posts, predictably, earned thousands of likes and hundreds of shares, spreading the cloud of cheerfulness that was over Pegulaville Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the team has a lot of leeway with Nolan in making him the interim head coach rather than just giving him the official tag. If the team makes drastic improvements, he can continue to lead it into next season. If the situation deteriorates quickly, he can be let go and the “real” coach can be brought in to pick up the pieces.

And in creating a position (“president of hockey operations”) for LaFontaine instead of making him the general manager, it gives the organization a familiar face in the front office for fans to be hyped up about while still allowing (eventually) decisions to be made by a general manager who is more qualified for the position.

Nolan may not be the coach of the future, and LaFontaine’s role in the public eye may diminish once the general manager search comes to an end, but bringing them in now in the short term is a shot in the arm for a weary fanbase that wouldn’t have been delivered had an unknown-to-the-masses head coach and general manager been trotted out Wednesday instead.

The chances that the product on the ice is going to improve dramatically in the 62 games that remain in 2013-14 are slim. If it does, wonderful. If it doesn’t—well, that’s just part of the blueprint toward getting that lottery pick and continuing the rebuilding process.

No harm, no foul.

But in the meantime, what the organization will have gained is the renewed excitement of fans who are now flooding message boards with proclamations of adoration for Pegula instead of calls for his head.

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