Cross Checks: Ron Rolston
How resigned were fans of the Buffalo Sabres to the likelihood that nothing about the dreadful state of their hockey team would ever change?
Let's put it this way: I'm not the only Sabres fan I know who saw the following tweet Wednesday morning and immediately thought "Someone's hacked the team's Twitter page."
Pegula: Pat LaFontaine will be President of Hockey Operations. Ted Nolan will be #Sabres interim head coach, effective today.— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 13, 2013
Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan are in as team president and interim coach? Longtime GM Darcy Regier and rookie coach Ron Rolston are out? No way. That's a cruel joke, right?
Not this team, which stood by Regier despite missing the playoffs in four of the past six seasons. Not the Sabres, which had seemingly taken the "we win when we lose" tanking of a season for high draft picks to an NBA extreme.
Except that it was true.
Who says Santa doesn't love Buffalo? It's Christmas in November. And time to cue up one of Sabres Hall of Fame broadcaster Rick Jeanneret's classic calls (and let's face it, there's no other kind): "Ohh, 'tis the season! Fa-la-la-la-la, la LaFontaine!"
Like a lot of Sabres fans, I was prepared for losing this season. Just not quite so much of it -- they're a league-worst 4-15-1 -- and not quite so convincingly. They were outshot 30-7 through two periods against the Kings on Tuesday night, for crying out loud. That's pretty much all you need to know.
Buffalo sports fans will put up with a lot, but they generally won't tolerate a lack of effort, real or perceived. And there have been times over the past three seasons when this team has seemingly lacked the skate-like-your-laces-are-on-fire intensity that can make up for a multitude of shortcomings in hockey.
Nolan should fix that immediately. He's well-known for demanding effort from his players and getting them to skate through walls for him. He won a Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 1997, after leading Buffalo to a division title. They didn't call his Sabres "the hardest-working team in hockey" for nothing.
If Nolan is seen by Sabres fans as at least a short-term fix, then LaFontaine is regarded as the long-term cure. He remains wildly popular in Buffalo, where his No. 16 hangs from the rafters. He's one of the greatest U.S.-born players in the game's history, and one could argue he'd be THE greatest had it not been for the concussions that shortened his career.
That reputation alone will open the doors to front office candidates and free agents who would have never previously considered America's North Coast.
Here's something else about Buffalo sports fans: They can be negative and bitter -- as the song goes, "you would cry too if it happened to you" -- but that's because deep down, they want to back a winner. They want their town, which has endured decades of economic difficulties, to be a winner. Heck, they threw Terrell Owens a party when he signed with the Bills, and that was for just showing up.
There likely won’t be another eighth-place-or-bust playoff push for the Sabres as there was in the past three seasons. Any team that starts out 4-15-1 likely needs more than the spark of a coaching change to overcome the sins of its first 20 games in the following 60.
But Wednesday's surprising announcement at least offers hope in what had become a relentlessly depressing season.Greg Sukiennik is an editor at ESPN.com.