It’s something that Reggie Leach can’t recall seeing during his 14-season National Hockey League career.
With the Buffalo Sabres hiring of Ted Nolan as interim head coach, two Native/First Nation people now pilot National Hockey League teams – Nolan and Philadelphia Flyers Head Coach Craig Berube.
“This is probably the first time we’ve had two First Nation coaches ever in the National Hockey League coaching at the same time,” Leach, the former Conn Smythe Trophy-winning Flyers sniper told me. “I think it really helps First Nation people in general that Teddy Nolan is back in coaching. It’s really big in Ontario and it’s really great for the people. They give him a lot of respect, which is great because he earned it.”
But then the man known as the “Riverton Rifle” during his playing days quickly uttered the mantra that’s only too true in big-money sports today: “If he screws up, they’re going to fire him, it doesn’t matter if he’s First Nation. It doesn’t matter if he’s First Nation or what.”
Still, Leach couldn’t conceal his pleasure about Nolan and Berube gaining – in Nolan’s case, regaining – membership in the NHL coaching fraternity. Leach is First Nation, an Ojibwe, just like Nolan. While Leach knows of Nolan – they lived about 300 miles apart in Ontario – he knows Berube, who played for the Flyers just like he did.They both made their mark wearing the Orange, Black and White: Leach as a feared right wing with a lethal slap shot, and Berube as a fearsome left wing with a lethal right hook.
Leach, who played on the famous LCB line with center Bobby Clarke and left wing Bill Barber scored 381 goals in his career. Berube netted 61 goals – what Leach scored in the 1975-61 season alone – in his 20-season NHL tenure and amassed 3,149 penalty minutes.
Berube paid his dues with his fists as a player then paid then again by slowly climbing the coaching ladder to earn the Flyers top spot after the team fired Peter Laviolette in October after a dismal start to the 2013-14 season.
“Craig Berube has spent time coaching in the minors and has been in the Flyer organization for a long team,” Leach said. “Coaching in the minors, being an assistant coach with the National Hockey League team, it’s great they gave a chance at this opportunity right now, which is wonderful for him.”
While Berube’s hiring is an opportunity, Buffalo’s nod to Nolan is a second chance. He coached Buffalo from 1995 to 1997 and amassed a record of 73-72-1. He was also the bench boss for the New York Islanders from 2006 to 2008.
Nolan was a popular figure in Buffalo; he even won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s top coach 1996-97 season. But a poor relationship with then-General Manager John Muckler led to his ouster as coach.
Aside from his stint with the Islanders, Nolan barely got a whiff of interest from National Hockey League teams. Some in the hockey world speculated it was because of his heritage.
“I never said it was racism,” Nolan told The Toronto Star Wednesday, the day he introduced as the Sabres’ interim coach. But “when you’re not part of a group, it’s tough to fit into that group – whether it’s hockey or anything else.”
“If you don’t know someone from a different background, different race, it’s hard to get to know them,” he told the paper. “So it was very hard…You have to try to fit in.”
After years of getting the cold shoulder from NHL teams, Nolan now has two coaching
gigs – with the Sabres and with the Latvian team that will play in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February.
In irony of ironies, Nolan will be in Russia with Dallas Stars Head Coach Lindy Ruff, who replaced Nolan in Buffalo in 1997. Ruff is an associate coach for Team Canada. And Laviolette, the man Berube succeeded in Philadelphia, is an associate coach for the U.S. hockey team.
Nolan’s never been shy about his heritage. In June, he spoke to The Buffalo News’ Tim Graham about his objection to Washington’s National Football League team being called the Redskins.
“Sure, the Redskins name has been around for generations,” Nolan told Graham, “but when you’re a person of that race and someone calls you a redskin, they don’t know why they’re saying it, where the word comes from or what the word means.”
Leach thinks Nolan’s tenure in the NHL will be a long one this time. With age, Nolan is 55, comes experience.
“You learn by your mistakes and you comeback,” Leach told me. “It took him a long time – a period of over 15 years – to get back. And he’ll learn from it and stay longer this time. He’s qualified to coach, and they’ve got to give him a chance. I believe myself that if you give him a chance for 2-3-4 years in one position, he’ll do really well.”