Ted Nolan is finally back in the NHL doing what he does best: win hockey games. The Islanders coach has his team thinking about a long playoff run after going 14 seasons without a postseason series win.
In this week's Facing Off, Nolan reflects on his unbelievable journey to becoming an NHL player, his controversial end in Buffalo and what Wayne Gretzky was like before he was "99."
Question from David Amber: The year you were drafted into the NHL , you played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League alongside a 17-year old named Wayne Gretzky. What was "The Great One" like before he was "The Great One?"
Answer from Ted Nolan: I came from a small reservation [Garden River First Nation Reserve]. We didn't have access to TV or newspapers or radio, so I went to camp not knowing anything about Wayne Gretzky. At camp, I started hearing all this hype about this kid coming from Southern Ontario. My first recollection was seeing this little skinny kid and thinking, "What's so great about this kid?" Back then at camp, we didn't do those one-on-one drills and passing drills, so he didn't really stand out. Then, we played our first game and we beat whoever we were playing, 7-1. Gretzky had one goal and six assists and I knew this kid was special. He always practiced so much; first guy on the ice, last guy off. There was just something about him.
Q: How little was he?
A: He was about 150 pounds, about 5-foot-10. He was just a little Bantam player. He was younger than us, so we knew we had to look after him in case some guys tried to take liberties against him. After a while, teams didn't try to hurt him, they tried to find a way to stop him, but they couldn't.
Q: When you played with Gretzky that season, did you know you were teammates with a player that would change the landscape of the game?
A: When we started going to other buildings, it was clear there was a buzz around Wayne. We went to Ottawa, where they usually had about 3,000 fans at the Civic Centre, but for our game, there were 15,000 fans. It was like that in every arena we went to. During the second intermission of games, Gretzky would have a shootout against the other team's leading scorer just to showcase what he could do. Gretzky was everyone's hero because he even had free passes to go to the movies. His agent got him passes, so he would take us to shows. That was big back then [laughs].
Q: You were drafted in the fifth round by the Detroit Red Wings in 1978. What was that day like for you?
A: I remember that day so vividly, it's like it was yesterday. I really didn't understand how the game worked. I just thought everyone went to NHL training camps. I didn't know there even was an NHL draft. I was a really shy kid, so I never asked any questions. After my junior career was over, I wanted to go pro, but I didn't know how to get there. So, I applied to be an Ontario Provincial Police officer. I actually got accepted to the academy and had an interview coming up to become a policeman. So, I'm sitting at home and we're playing cribbage, my mom, my girlfriend at the time [who is now Nolan's wife]. The next thing I know, I hear on the radio that I had been drafted by the Detroit Red Wings. I was just ecstatic, but I kept it cool in front of my family. I grabbed my beat up car, drove toward the woods and danced, screamed and hollered for about 20 minutes, and that was it.
Q: That's a crazy story. So no one told you about the draft and that you were being scouted?
A: I just played and then went back to the reservation. I was sheltered from a lot of the hockey stuff. I really hung out on the reservation a lot. I remember at one point, the Greyhounds moved me from the reservation to the city and I had a roommate from the team. There were two partridges sitting on a tree near the house we lived in, and not knowing any better, we opened up the window and shot them both [laughs]. The landlady saw us. She went berserk and kicked us out of the house [laughs]. So, we went back to our house, plucked the partridges and ate them for dinner. So, I was really a naive kid. I didn't pay attention to all the other stuff. I just played hockey.
Q: Growing up on a reservation and then being put into such a different environment when you played Junior – what was the hardest part of that transition?
A: The year before I went to the Greyhounds, I played Junior in Kenora, Ontario, and that was tough. I had to deal with a lot of racism, a lot of name-calling. I had never faced that when I was a kid. The hardest part was all the taunts and everything away from the ice.
Q: What was your first NHL training camp like?
A: It was scary. Playing against men was tough; guys with beards and guys who were 6-foot-4, mean, tough, big men. I never trained a day in my life. I just ran around the bush, cut down trees and worked on the reservation. These guys were riding bikes, lifting weights, doing VO2 training, so I got scared and I left. I hopped on a bus and went home. But my mom told me to go back, and thankfully, Ted Lindsay [then-Red Wings GM] called and gave me the opportunity to go back. Lindsay understood what I was going through, so he reached out to me and gave me another chance.
Q: You played part of three seasons in the NHL. Why couldn't you land a regular spot in the NHL?
A: I never went to hockey school or did power skating. I played house-league hockey until I was 12 years old. I never played travel hockey. My season was from November until March. I never trained in the offseason. I just played hockey 'cause I had fun at it. When I got drafted to the NHL, I still couldn't cross my left foot over my right foot; I couldn't do crossovers on one side. I just didn't have the proper training to be an everyday NHL player.
Q: Did you make enough money to live comfortably during your pro career?
A: [Laughs] Things were a little different back then. I was paid $17,000 for my first contract. An agent called me. I didn't even know what an agent was. But he said he would represent me and I said "OK." He told me, "I got you $17,000 for the contract and a $6,000 signing bonus." I said. "What's a signing bonus?" He said, "You sign your name and you get an extra $6,000." I said, "Sure." I was just ecstatic [laughs]. After a while, I realized that wasn't a lot of money. Every summer that I was a pro, I still worked. I delivered pop for Coca-Cola. I worked carpentry and construction building houses. I worked nighttime security. I had a lot of jobs, even as an NHL player.
Q: At what point did you think coaching would be the next professional destination for you?
A: I never thought about it. After my career ended, I went back to school at Lake Superior State University. I was helping out the hockey team there and the Greyhounds found out I was helping out the college team, so they asked if I would help out their Junior team. Then, they asked me to be a full-time assistant coach. I agreed to it, and then, a month later, they fired the head coach and they asked me to take over for the rest of the year. They said they were still looking for a permanent coach, but after the season ended, they still hadn't found one, so they asked me to come back full time. We finished dead last that first year, so I still had a lot to learn.
Q: Yeah, but, a few years later you won a Memorial Cup championship with the Greyhounds. Of all the players you coached there, who do you think you most helped to become an NHL-caliber player?
A: The most notable one is Chris Simon. Chris had lost his way a little bit. He got involved with things he never should have been involved with, made some bad decisions in his life, he had an alcohol problem. One day, our general manager asked if I wanted to coach "the big Indian guy playing for the Ottawa 67's." I knew who Simon was, I knew his dad. I had the same background as him, so we thought we could help him out. He was pretty confused when we got him, but we worked really hard with him. To see him now and to see what he has done, I think that's the greatest accomplishment I have had in my whole coaching career.
Q: Do you ever think about coaching either of your sons, Brandon or Jordan?
A: I think about that every day. I coached Jordan at the minor-league level the last few years. To get a chance to coach him at this level would be every father's dream. It's Jordan's draft year and Brandon is playing with our farm team down in Bridgeport in the AHL. We signed Brandon as a free agent this summer. He had been drafted a few years back in the third round by New Jersey.
Q: It's been a decade since you left the Sabres. What's been the hardest part of that whole experience?
A: The hardest part is the lies, the stories that were said on why I left. When your character is attacked, that is tough. The one thing I have always worked on since I was a kid is trying to fight for respect. I thought I did that. It still hurts to this day, when people can make up such terrible lies. I still have problems with it. I have two boys, and the one thing I try to teach them is respect and being the best person they can be. Then, all of a sudden, they're reading stories about their father being a drunk or being a skirt chaser. It was just crazy.
Q: Who made up the lies?
A: Those famous "they" people. Every time I read a story, it was "they said," but no one was ever named. The hardest part was going through some NHL coaching interviews and getting asked about things that nothing to do with hockey. So, it was a tough time.
Q: Before taking this Islanders job, how close were you to taking another NHL head coaching position?
A: Not close. Tampa Bay offered me a job six months after I was let go by Buffalo, but it wasn't the right thing for my family at the time. So I passed.
Q: What role did race play in you not getting a legitimate chance to coach in the NHL over the last decade?
A: That's a tough question. I think it has to do with people not understanding people from different backgrounds, maybe different upbringings. If people can't relate to you, they are going to have misconceptions about you. I didn't go to school with these guys [NHL GMs] and they didn't know who I was and I look different. So, when you look different, people may treat you differently. It's not just hockey, it's every walk of life. Hopefully, it will be different down the road. Maybe the next generation of kids will only look at people for what they are as human beings.
Q: You're back in the NHL now and your Islanders look primed to get back to the playoffs. How were you able to make a deal for Ryan Smyth?
A: So many names were coming up, like Billy Guerin's name came up. Then, all of a sudden, Ryan Smyth's name came up. We put the same offer up to Edmonton that we had put up to other teams and they went for it. Give [Islanders GM] Garth Snow credit -- he just stuck with it. When Garth called me at 3 o'clock and told me we got the deal done, I couldn't believe he pulled that deal off.
Q: How does Smyth change the dynamic of the team?
A: Certain people have this presence about them, which adds credibility to your team from the top to the bottom, and he's one of those special players. He competes hard and he works hard. I even noticed the first couple of practices, some guys got out five minutes early on the ice. Now, Ryan's out there on the ice 20 minutes before practice, so everyone just feeds off that. He will help re-establish this organization to where it was once before.
Q: Aside from the Islanders, which team do you think made the biggest impact at the trade deadline?
Q: You have found success everywhere you've been as a coach. How do you explain your ability to get the most out of your players?
A: I think I try to understand these guys as people first, find out what they are like. It's an old saying, but it's so true today. People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. If you care about them as people first, they will play harder for you.
ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.