BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Three years ago, Ted Nolan needed a map to locate Latvia.
Now he’s speaking their language.
Thanks to hockey, Nolan has become well-acquainted with the small, proud Baltic nation since taking over Latvia’s national team, which he will be coaching at the Sochi Winter Games.
“Yeah, I learned the language, and the people on the street taught me a couple of terms,” the Buffalo Sabres’ interim coach said this week. “I’ve learned a few words in Latvian to get by, how to shoot and work and compete.”
These are among the phrases Nolan required to get across his message to players, a majority of whom compete in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.
And yet, Nolan’s desire to learn the language went beyond bridging a communication gap.
As a First Nations’ Ojibwa growing up in Sault St. Marie, Ontario, Nolan is drawn to how a nation identifies itself through culture and language. In Latvia, that, in part, means speaking the native tongue after the country spent much of the past century under the control of the former Soviet Union.
As a result, one of the first rules Nolan established was having only Latvian — not Russian, Swedish or English — spoken in the locker room.
“When you’re a group that’s kind of been put down and under certain rule, sometimes it’s tough to find your identity,” said Nolan, who leans on former Latvian NHLers Arturs Irbe and Sandis Ozolinsh to translate when necessary.
“It’s Latvia, so let’s use your language. I think you should be proud to be a Latvian. You should be proud to be a Canadian. You should be proud to be from whatever nation you’re from. And in Latvia, they’re a proud people. And to be a part of that, I’m just thrilled.”
The feelings are mutual given what Nolan has accomplished since succeeding Olegs Znaroks, whose contract was not renewed after Latvia finished 13th in the 2011 world championships.
Last year, the Latvians earned their fourth consecutive Olympic berth and fifth overall, by winning a four-team round-robin qualifying tournament. They did so in dramatic fashion, earning the one-point required by overcoming a 2-0 deficit in a 3-2 overtime loss to France in their final game.
Latvia, ranked 11th, opens against Switzerland on Wednesday, and is in a pool rounded out by the Czech Republic and Sweden.
Nolan doesn’t discount his team being the underdog. And yet, he notes, anything is possible in a short tournament.
“You never know. We took Finland to overtime at the world championships last year,” he said. “We’re a hard-working team. And now they’re starting to believe. And that’s a deadly combination once in a while.”
Nolan would know something about that.
In his first stop in Buffalo, his Sabres were billed as “the hardest working team in hockey.” It was a rough and tumble squad that led to Nolan being named NHL coach of the year in 1997. He left the team that summer over a contract dispute.
He then spent two seasons coaching the New York Islanders, and led them to the playoffs in 2006-07, before being fired after the following season.
Nolan is back for his second stint with the Sabres, after being hired in mid-November as part of a shake-up that included Pat LaFontaine taking over as president of hockey operations. Nolan just happened to be waiting to board a connecting flight in Germany, while traveling back from Latvia when LaFontaine called him with the job offer in Buffalo.
The Sabres feature one of Latvia’s rising stars, hard-hitting rookie forward Zemgus Girgensons. He was chosen 14th overall in the 2012, the highest ever by a Latvian-born player.
Girgensons got a kick out of his coach, when Nolan started speaking Latvian to the Sabres and had the player interpret.
“He’s a motivating coach,” Girgensons said. “He gets guys’ mindsets in the right place. I think that’s the strongest part of him.”
Foreign as his Latvian players’ names might be, Nolan has an easy time listing them off. They include Ozolinsh, Martins Karsums, who was drafted by Boston, and former NHL defensemen Oskars Bartulis and Arturs Kulda. In net, there’s Kristers Gudlevskis, who was drafted in the fifth round by Tampa Bay last year.
“There’s some hidden gems over there that like anything else in life, people need opportunity,” said Nolan, who can relate after getting another chance in Buffalo. “When I’m coaching a hockey team, I try to have that belief. You know: âWhy can’t we win?’ And when you grab a group of people, ordinary people, you can do extraordinary things.”