Islanders' Ted Nolan, Garth Snow Reach an Impasse in New York

Ken RosenblattSenior Analyst IJuly 14, 2008

"I feel my continued service aboard can only reduce my usefulness to the Navy...and increase disharmony aboard this ship." --Mister Roberts (1955)

Increased disharmony indeed. 

In the 1955 film Mister Roberts, the title character, played by Henry Fonda, solicited a transfer of duty from his captain, played by James Cagney. One can only wonder how instrumental Ted Nolan was in orchestrating his own departure from the Islanders.  

One thing certainly can be said about this dismissal/firing/settlement—the Islanders managed to end the Nolan era better than the Mets ended the Willie Randolph era. And Garth Snow benefits from making this change in this media market at a time when the move the Mets made appears to be paying off. 

Some fans are expressing outrage—but there is not a universal outcry of injustice. Perhaps we simply all saw it coming.  But it's remarkable that this story does not seem to be on fire. You get the sense that the fan base not only knew this was imminent, but is accepting it—maybe not across the board, but widely enough that there really aren't any flames to be fanned or doused.  

But how did we get here?  How does Snow, with so little experience as an executive, get to institute his philosophy, while Nolan's successful body of work is shoved aside? 

I've yet to be convinced that Charles Wang's way of doing business is going to be beneficial to the franchise. He ignored the traditional standards for hiring a GM. All that was required was familiarity with the game, the intelligence to do the work, and a willingness to do whatever Wang wants.

And I'm not entirely sure that familiarity with the game is a prerequisite.  Can't you imagine, if Snow vacated the GM position, that Wang might hire someone he likes and thinks is capable, regardless of hockey knowledge? Specialty skills and experience? Not required. 

On the other hand, dismissing Nolan may have been the most general manager-y thing Snow has done. Maybe he went to Wang and said, "Look, I'm the GM. I should be able to pick my coach."  Why wouldn't Nolan want to get on board with the program? Did he simply not believe in it?

In his exit comments, he stated that he has great respect for what the organization is doing.  So was he simply worried that he would be held accountable for the poor won-loss record of a rebuilding team?

More likely, he couldn't stand to have his voice and influence marginalized within the organization. Nor likely did he appreciate being told how to run his team.  Nolan is a proud man. Having said that, let's not let it singularly define the man. He is also sharp, pleasant, and engaging—among many other things, I'm sure.  But he may be too proud to toe the company line, whether in subscribing to organizational philosophy or in accepting coaching advice. And while the former should be part of his job description, the latter should be required only in small and infrequent doses. 

Nolan doesn't seem particularly aggrieved about leaving. But you'd have to think he's unhappy with the way things turned out—unless he was equally unhappy about the way things were.  He said the right things today—which was ironic, considering the trouble Snow and Nolan had filtering their public comments over the last few months. Maybe they were filtered, but they certainly weren't veiled.

It has been odd to see them passive-aggressively stating their displeasure with one another through the press.  The decision to remove Nolan probably had less to do with how the Islanders performed under his direction than it did with two men being unable to find common ground. It wasn't so much philosophy on the ice as it was divergent definitions of respect off of it.  It may have been as simple as Nolan being unwilling to coach without security beyond this year, and the organization being unwilling to give him that security. A matter-of-fact impasse, and a mutual parting of the ways.  

That management and coach couldn't get on the same page is a shame. Nolan has a lot to offer as a coach. But he still seems to have a lot to overcome.  Nolan was an NHL outsider. The Islander faithful felt pride, knowing that its team opened the door for this man with a knack for motivating players to get back to the big leagues. But once back in, it continued to feel like Nolan was an outsider.

Would any other NHL team have ever given him a shot? What team, other than one starved for recognition and run by an unconventional owner, would have opened this door?  Nolan was never perceived as just a hockey coach. He was a player's coach. But that meant that he had the accompanying tag of "tactically challenged."

And he favored veterans. So he wasn't a player's coach to all players. Then, some of those veteran players apparently didn't appreciate what he had to offer.  He certainly found himself on the outside of the inner circle.

At the draft in Ottawa, it looked like Nolan was sitting at the distant relatives' table.  There was sufficient evidence to suggest that this parting was coming. Give credit to the people involved for taking care of it before the timing could have caused even more turbulence for the team.  

Many of us wanted Ted Nolan to be the answer. It was a good story that could have become even better. It still doesn't compute entirely that Garth Snow gets to decide that Nolan is not the answer. It's unsettling that stubborn pride could set a good leader adrift.  

The ideal solution would have been for coach and management to find a way not to clash. It didn't happen. The ideal now is to get everyone moving in the same direction.  The NHL would benefit from its Long Island franchise gaining traction and momentum. It would also be richer for the continued presence of Ted Nolan.