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Ted Nolan is a former NHL player and coach, who won the NHL's Jack Adams trophy in 1997. He is known for his support of the development of hockey programs in Aboriginal communities.
By Dave Dale
Ted Nolan is many things, but most of all he is a rare example of individual self-determination.
As the reigning National Hockey League's Coach of the Year and a valuable role model for Anishinabeg and non-native alike, he promotes personal development as the most important factor in achieving goals - regardless of the career path - be it professional hockey, health sciences or parenthood.
After researching several television documentaries, newspaper features and keynote presentations, Nolan's recipe for success appears to be founded on a basic understanding of human nature. But it is blended with equal portions of respect and discipline - spiced with a healthy pinch of tenacity.
True to form, Nolan has improved himself in whatever areas his career aspirations demanded - setting an example as a hockey player, coach and inspirational role model. Yet, his message and world-view has remained genuine and consistent since childhood. It can be summarized in four key 'action' words: dream, believe, plan and prepare.
"When I was going to school, people kept telling me I couldn't do anything," said the Garden River Ojibway during a 1993 TSN sports feature narrated by Dave Hodge. Nolan shared with the audience how he overcame the negativity of his childhood and various career setbacks, and how he continues to have confidence in himself. And his very tone leaves no doubt that his dreams of coaching in the NHL survived the Ontario Hockey League's failure to recognize him for his proven success, as did Canada's national junior selection committee in passing him over as our international coach. It was a jagged pill for his proud supporters and a perplexed Nolan to swallow after navigating the Soo Greyhounds to a national junior hockey championship - icing on the cake after three consecutive Ontario Hockey Leagues crowns.
As Hodge put it, Nolan "defied the odds…in a white-man's game" and wanted more.
Nolan's story, even at that time, was considered worthy of a book. He had reached heights that seemed out of reach as a child, a far, far cry from his humble beginnings as one of 12 children who lived without running water until 1977. His poverty, while he says he never felt poor or disadvantaged while growing up on the reserve, is best illustrated when his brother, Steve, and he tried out for a Sault Ste. Marie triple A team - sharing one stick, one helmet and two gloves between shifts.
In the end, the TSN piece highlighted how tough it would be for Nolan to find a job coaching in the NHL, an elusive professional goal for all but the best or best connected who play the hockey fraternity game. It was noted that his karma was tainted when he turned down an offer to coach a farm team in the Detroit Red Wings' organization (his decision to concede the opportunity honoured the destiny of the national junior championship that came that same year).
"Certainly, when I was growing up, I heard a lot of 'can'ts' - it inspired me to prove people wrong," he echoed again last month at the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre during the addiction awareness week workshops. Repeating almost word for word many of the vintage Nolan anecdotes, he spoke for more than 90 minutes about his philosophy and strategy for personal achievement, outlining how people can rise above the negativity and excuses associated with centuries of racism and oppression.
"If you want something, and you believe in yourself, and you plan, you can achieve it," Nolan said, planting the seed of inspiration in young and old alike. He commented on the inspiration he felt after talking to a local adult student who recently graduated from high school and is moving ahead in college.
"Obviously we have a lot of hurdles to overcome. But things change, and we have to change with them. We have to be strong as native people, but we have to stop saying things are not going to work because we're from a reserve and because we're Indian."
Of course, his message has the power of example behind it. He often recalls that the junior hockey players in the Soo learned to respect the clarity of his philosophy, participating in a disciplined strategy that focused on practice and training. A locker room sign, left for all to read every day said it best: "The will to prepare is more important than the will to win."
While that experience underlines the value of preparation, it also highlights that qualities of leadership and ability that raised Nolan above the shadow of racism. It set the stage for a team of junior hockey players (a predominantly white group) to follow him to a national championship.
"I don't think it's the colour of our skin anymore," he says, noting that people have to believe in themselves as part of the preparation to succeed.
And, as he stated on TVO's Studio 2 profile broadcast Dec. 2: "One step at a time, you can do anything you want."
It's a philosophy that has taken Nolan far. But not far enough for his liking.
Soon after the TSN feature four years ago, he landed an assistant coaching job with Hartford, and then spent two years transforming a thread-bare Buffalo Sabre squad into playoff performers in 1996-97. His star was shining brightly across Turtle Island and he was chosen to receive the coveted Jack Adams Trophy - scoring a moral victory over the oppressive Buffalo GM John Muckler. Named the executive of the year for his part in the team's budget-cutting, Muckler crossed swords publicly with Nolan due to conflicts in coaching philosophies. It was a messy affair, but Anishinabe everywhere were proud of his success and courage in the face of the heavy-handed executive.
Yet, somehow, his proven abilities and determination did not translate into a multi-year contract, which would, quite naturally lead to a Stanley Cup championship - the usual apex of a great career and Story Book life. Instead, the Nolan journey continued with adversity and challenge as the Sabres low-balled their offer and insulted the 'Coach of the Year' with a one-year term.
It was another NHL first for Nolan. And it was a staggering blow to the young Nishnabe boy living inside the 39-year old Nolan. It strikes at the very heart of the Nolan who dreamed of an NHL life under cold, Northern Ontario skies three decades before. Imagine the heartache of achieving so much and being denied the rewards of your victory.
The thaw was slow to come last Spring - in more ways than one for Nolan, and the freeze lasted far into summer.
As the third annual Ted Nolan Golf Tournament was underway in late-June, as the Rose Nolan Scholarship Fund announced the recipients of the first bursaries in honour of his mother, his guiding force, he was being shut out of the sport he loves so dear. But the warmth of childhood memories, the very actions that made the dream come true, soon revitalized his desire. To understand Nolan, and how positive youthful experiences support adult perspectives, a person must only imagine the seemingly irrelevant actions of childhood.
For Nolan to regain focus on his goals and what they mean, he returns to the memory of building outdoor skating rinks year-after-year, pulling away at a creaky, hand-cranked well pump, and spreading the freezing water across the yard one-icy-bucket at a time.
The imprint of youth, especially self-determined activities, is strong and should be nurtured and cherished as preparation for adulthood. It's another gem of life experience offered by Nolan for parents and grandparents to consider.
"When I talk about when I was growing up, and how I got to the NHL, I think about making that rink 'one-pail-at-a-time' and how I learned the importance of work and how life teaches you quite a bit," Nolan said to the North Bay listeners. He stressed that there is no excuse for not improving yourself, or not attempting something because someone else has it easier "and to not sit back and wish I had this, and wish I had that."
It certainly keeps Nolan on the right track during times of despair - fighting off the natural negative thoughts he must face as an unemployed coach three weeks before the Christmas break. It's his family upbringing and dedication to his people that allows him to appreciate his 'vacation'. Nolan says he has enjoyed the quality time he has for his family as he maintains the homestead in Fort Erie with wife Sandra, and sons (Brandon, 14, and Jordan, 8), while touring Anishinabek communities as a Union of Ontario Indians role model.
In fact, at a dinner meeting at Don Cherry's in North Bay, he talked less about his career than he did about finally attending his son's Triple A bantam schedule - missing just two games so far.
However, as Buffalo wallows in the lower swampland of the Northeast Division (dead last behind Carolina), Nolan is eager for another chance to be at the helm of the right NHL squad. While he was considered for the Tampa Bay position in early November, Nolan didn't consider it to be the right opportunity for him.
"I'm missing it more that I thought," he told the Toronto Star's Rosie DiManno of his life as a coach. She filled a full page in the Oct. 12, 1997 issue detailing the entire 'ascent and descent' of Nolan's star - from the material poverty and the riches of family support to how he survived his first out-of-town hockey year in a racist Kenora in the late 1970s. He shared moments of agony and the insightful cornerstones of his manhood, including the loss of his father when he was 14-years-old, and his mother being killed by a drunk driver in 1981.
Memory after memory, when life was harshest, it is clear Nolan benefits by drawing upon his tenacity and will power. And while that has become one of his chief messages for youth, he supplements his example by providing evidence that everyone needs a plan of action to prepare for achievement.
For example, not many people realize that he was cut by the Soo Greyhounds at his first junior hockey selection camp in 1977. He still had a dream to play, and he believed in himself, but he was obviously ill-prepared. His answer was to find out what he was missing and he developed a resourceful training regimen to improve his speed and endurance. In fact, lacking a membership or transportation to a fancy gym, he used an outdoor obstacle course for his workouts: running the railway ties for quick feet, chopping trees for upper body strength and running the rails for balance.
Later, when he returned from the NHL with a bad back in 1986, he thought he would become a public speaker - only to be embarrassed once again due to lack of preparation. While his dream was well-fed by an eight-year professional hockey career, including 78 games with Detroit and Pittsburgh, he wasn't prepared to be useful as a role model. It didn't take him long to enlist in public speaking courses to improve his presentations, containing his stage fright, and fighting tooth and nail to gain ground on his dream of making a difference in First Nation communities.
Now, 10 years later, approaching mid-life and beginning from yet another starting point, he continues to dream, with goals of coaching a team to the NHL's Stanley Cup championship, and then becoming an effective First Nations leader.
Okay, so that qualifies for a dream, and it's easy to see that he believes in himself.
In the years to come, it will be interesting to see the 'Ted Nolan Plan' unveiled, and the preparation he will undertake to fully realize his potential.