Despite the personal rivalries, lies, bad intentions, and discrimination, Ted Nolan, from Garden River First Nation or Gitigaan-ziibi in Anishinaabe, also known as Ketegaunseebee, made it from a small northern reservation to the NHL. But after he won the Jack Adams Award as the best coach in the NHL, he didn’t work in the NHL again for a decade. Why?
Nolan’s story is one of succeeding against the odds. He grew up in poverty outside Sault St. Marie, on the Garden River reserve, in a small house that had no running hot water or electricity. He made his own backyard rink and fell in love with the game.
That love was enough to take him to the pros. Nolan was drafted in 1978 by the Detroit Red Wings. But his real talent lay in coaching. Teams always got better when he was behind the bench. As a very young coach, he coached the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds to three consecutive Memorial Cup Finals. When he got his shot in the NHL, Nolan immediately turned around the Buffalo Sabres, earning them the title of “hardest-working team in professional sports.” He took them deep into the playoffs. That was enough to convince the league that he was the best coach in the NHL.
And yet, the Sabres failed to re-sign their star coach. In fact, Nolan didn’t coach in the NHL again for an incredible ten years. This despite coaching the Moncton Wildcats to the Memorial Cup and shocking the hockey world by coaching tiny Latvia to a near-draw with mighty Team Canada. So why wasn’t Nolan back behind an NHL bench?
“If my skin were white,” says Nolan, “I’d be coaching.”
This is a story then, of succeeding against the odds, and then having success stripped away. It is partly an angry story, a story of injustice, that makes this memoir a story of learning. It is a fierce look at one man’s journey as he comes to know the wider world—with the courage to reach for the previously unattained, and the humility to recognize what really matters in the end.
Meg Masters is a Toronto-based writer and editor.