If somebody knows how to maximize efforts with little means, itís Ted Nolan. Having grown up in the Ojibwa First Nations community in Ontario with limited possibilities to afford playing hockey, Nolan played 78 NHL games for Detroit and Pittsburgh before switching to coaching at a young age following an injury.
Apart from his success in the Ontario Hockey League with his hometown team the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Nolan won the Jack Adams Award for the NHL Coach of the Year in 1997 with Buffalo. His son Brandon played for Carolina while his other son Jordan is on the Los Angeles Kingsí farm team.
2012 will be a year with new experiences for Nolan. The 53-year-old will coach in Europe for the first time, and he will coach a national team for the first time. This week he will be behind the Latvian bench for a four nations tournament in Norway less than three months before he will lead the team at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland and Sweden.
With Latvia heíll find himself in a similar situation like earlier in his life. Having finished 13th last year, the team from the Baltic nation of two million people will be an underdog. But the hockey-crazy maroon-and-white fans hope for more.
IIHF.comís Martin Merk met Nolan at a game of the Latvian U20 national team during the recent IIHF World Junior Championship in Calgary.
How did it happen that you became coach of the Latvian national team?
They contacted me through a friend of a friend. It was probably one of the coolest moments. I said ďyesĒ on a Thursday, signed the contract and flew over on Monday. It went really quick because if a country asks you to coach their national team, itís quite an honour. I was very honoured and humbled at the same time. So Iím looking forward to it.
I went over for a press conference, met the players, scouted some tournaments and helped the young kids and see people from the Latvian program. I coached [Karlis] Skrastins and [Oskars] Bartulis when they were in North America and I knew other players like [Sandis] Ozolins before.
You also brought a drum to Latvia.
I saw the Latvian Hockey Federation published it on their website. I brought it as a present because drums are very sacred to our people. It was some goodwill on behalf of my people to the Latvian people.
Have you already had the chance to coach the team?
In February it will be the first time. Iíll coach the team in Norway and then we go to the World Championship. Iím really looking forward to it. We will see some new players.
You were following the U20 national team in Calgary that finished the IIHF World Junior Championship in ninth place out of ten teams. What can you say about the juniors?
Theyíre young. They played teams like Russia, Sweden, USA here. Theyíre learning, itís good for them to have this experience.
Youíre the first North American coach for the Latvian national team. Will we see some changes?
I really know one way to coach. You have to play the game with your heart and with some energy and some passion and hopefully the players want to play that way and be enthusiastic and with some energy and do those type of things. You have to work the opposition to have a chance to win in hockey. Thatís the system weíre going to put in. You have to think tactically and defensively strong, but basically you have to play with passion.
But the style of play you saw in Latvia must be pretty different to what youíre used to.
I noticed that they tend to use combinations, to outplay the opponent, while we play more north-south hockey in North America. I want to combine both styles.
How do you follow Latvian hockey?
I watched KHL games a couple of times. Iím in contact via e-mails, watch games on YouTube and read scouting reports.
How do you like what you see when you watch Dinamo Riga, Latviaís KHL team, play?
I really like them. Thereís Mikelis Redlihs and Martins Karsums and Janis Sprukts as the number-one line on the team. They are one of the top lines in the KHL. Thatís impressive for us as a team. And they have a guy like Ozolins as the captain of the team. We have some very good players on the team. Then we have Kaspars Daugavins playing with the Ottawa Senators, and Bartulis and Ivanans playing on the farm teams, and players like Skulda playing over here.
You talked about Ozolins. Would you like to have him back on the national team?
Iíd love him to be back. Thereís nothing like experience, especially his experience. Heís one of the top players in the world. To have his calibre and a mentor like him on the ice, thatís important. Coaches are important, but mentors too. Look at Mark Messier, how great he was as a captain, or at Ryan Smyth or some older players who play with younger kids. He would be more than welcome.
Did you get to know the Latvian hockey mentality?
Yes. Itís trying to implement some of our approach to the game in North America into the European style. They have good skill and I try to add as much as I can to their program. Latvian players are hard-working players with their success theyíve had over the last couple of years. Theyíre in the top division as a very small country. Thatís very impressive.
You were an NHL coach. How did it come that you suddenly landed in Latvia?
They contacted me. Sometimes things happen for reasons and Iím honoured and looking forward to coaching Latvia. Itís a great opportunity for me. Iíve coached in the NHL, Iíve coached junior teams, but I have never coached a national team. Itís very special to be in Europe and youíve got some responsibility of directing and helping and coaching a national team of a country. I take that with lot of pride. Latvia is a small country fighting against big nations. I like this kind of task. It reminds me of my own career. We didnít have much in my community when I grew up. You have to earn everything in your life.
What were your first impressions of the country?
The people that I met were very friendly. I was very impressed with the history and culture of Latvia, the buildings and the architecture. Itís something you donít see too much over here in North America.
Frankly, how much had you known about the country before you were offered the job?
I didnít know where it was to tell you the truth. I read much about Latvia when they contacted me. Growing up in a small First Nations community in Canada, a reservation as they refer to us in the States, Iíve never in my wildest dream thought Iíd be overseas coaching a hockey team. But the world is growing and Iím happy to be part of it.
What role does hockey play in First Nations communities like the one you grew up?
Hockey is a very big sport in our communities. You look at Jonathan Cheechoo and other players. But weíre lots of smaller communities. Funding isnít there. A lot of our reserves are in third-world conditions. We donít have many facilities and thereís no money to play, but the kids love to play. We have programs and I also work in hockey schools. Weíre doing the best we can, but funding is very important and we have to find ways to give our kids the opportunity to play the game.
At the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship there might be thousands of Latvian fans coming over to Stockholm. What do you think about that?
I hope so. I was really impressed of the fans in Latvia. When I went first time over and attended a home game of Dinamo Riga the fans were really enthusiastic. The fans are excited, we are excited, it will be an exciting time. I want it so that the fans will be proud of our team.