Facing adversity made former NHL coach Ted Nolan a better coach

I remember crying myself to sleep every night as a 16 year old, and I wish I had someone then to tell me it would get better.”


Ted Nolan grew up on the Garden River Ojibwe First Nations reserve, in a small house that had no running hot water or electricity.

At a young age Nolan fell in love with the game of hockey. It was an escape for him at the time, but it wouldn’t always be that way.

It was in 1976 that 16-year-old Nolan would move away from home to start off his career with the Kenora Thistles. But, he wasn’t welcomed with open arms. “Where I went, there was a lot of racism and prejudice.” Nolan said.

He often dealt with physical violence both at school and at the rink.

Nolan explained it went from him growing up loving the game to “trying to survive in the game.” … “I was lonely, and afraid.”

Due to the severity of the situation his loved ones insisted on him quitting and returning home, he refused.

“If I quit now, then the next tough situation I’ll quit again.”

His resilience would eventually lead him to playing three seasons in the National Hockey League for the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, and later coaching the Buffalo Sabres.

Nolan claims his hardship was the number one reason he decided to pursue coaching.

“I understand players don’t have bad games for no particular reason. There were times when I couldn’t play my best as a kid but there are reasons for it.”  “I kind of had a soft heart and more of an understanding.”

In his second season coaching the Sabres (1996-97) he led the team to a Northeast Division title, and was rewarded with the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach.

In 1997 he left the Sabres and denied job offers from the Lightning and an assistant coach job with the Islanders, he described the offers as “insulting” especially after winning the Jack Adams Award. It is said Nolan was not offered an NHL coaching job again until May 2006, a span of eight years, which is believed to be stemmed from racism.

In 2005, Nolan was the coach and director of hockey operations for the Moncton Wildcats. He was the coach of a familiar name, Brad Marchand.

“He can understand how to treat each guy and how every guy has to be treated different.” Marchand said in an interview. “Some coaches don’t know how to do that. He finds a way to bring the best out of every guy.”

On December 16th, he was the victim of racial harassment during a Wildcats road game against the Chicoutimi Saguenéens. Fans in the stands yelled racial slurs at him and directed gestures such as the “tomahawk chop” and shooting a bow and arrow towards him as he stood behind the Moncton bench.

When situations like that occurred, and when his background began to affect his job offerings he found his wife, Sandra Nolan, asking him “What makes you stay?”

“I’m too stubborn to leave.” Is the best answer he could come up with.

He is currently coaching Poland’s men’s national hockey team.

His dedication to the game would inspire his children Jordan and Brandon Nolan to also fall in love with hockey. Jordan is playing for the Sabres. He was selected by Los Angeles in the seventh round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. He won two Stanley Cups with the Kings.

In Brandon Nolan’s three-year OHL career with the Oshawa Generals, he finished with 81 goals and 103 assists. He played six games with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The combined success of the three of them, and what they had to endure to get there, lead to 3|NOLANS. The 3|NOLANS program works with First Nations youth to develop hockey skills, knowledge and how to become future leaders and positive role models in their communities.

“I just really want to make sure what ever experiences I can pass on I’ll do everything in my power to do it. I remember crying myself to sleep every night as a 16 year old, and I wish I had someone then to tell me it would get better.”

A portion of the proceeds from 3|NOLANS goes to the Ted Nolan Foundation, a non-profit charitable foundation that annually awards 10 scholarships to First Nations women across Canada.

Helping the Indigenous community means everything to Nolan. He leaves an important message for everybody who participates in his hockey schools, and attends his many public speaking events.

“It’s a very simple philosophy. I just believe in working hard. If its not working you’re not working hard enough.” Nolan said. “You need perseverance, if this is something you really want to do, you’ll find a way.”


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