Nolan struggles to regain touch

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:02 AM ET

DETROIT -- No goals. No assists. No problem.

So far, Owen Nolan has not hit the scoreboard for his new team, the Phoenix Coyotes. But Nolan is confident that the results will come, and his coach, Wayne Gretzky, is just as confident. Perhaps even more so.

"Owen has been really good for us," Gretzky said yesterday, a day before his Coyotes take on the Red Wings. "The one thing about Owen is that he has been a true professional in the locker room (and) in practice. He has been nothing but professional."

When last seen in the National Hockey League, Nolan was a Maple Leaf with a swollen knee and a swollen contract.

After one knee operation, Nolan had another that he said was necessary. The Leafs said it wasn't. Finally, a settlement was reached, but not without some acrimony.

"You'd like to think it could have gone more smoothly," Nolan said after the Coyotes practice yesterday, "but I understand that it's a business and they're going to try to look after their end. At the same time, I'm going to look after mine. I don't have any ill will toward anybody about it."

Nevertheless, it wasn't the highlight of his career.

"It's a part of life," he said, "part of the game. You take the good with the bad. Unfortunately, that stint in Toronto was a tough time in my career."

But that's in the past. After a two-year hiatus, Nolan is back and with Phoenix, a circumstance that pleases his coach.

"The only thing I've said to Owen," Gretzky said, "is that it's not going to all come back to you in three weeks. He missed two years and I don't care how much you practise or what great shape you're in, you need some games to get your timing and get comfortable.

"Right now, I've got him playing like a first-year player really, and he's playing well. In our last game, Owen had six shots on goal. He's killing penalties. He's going to be fine. He plays hard all the time.

"But he has been out for two years and he last played under the old rules, so that's a further adjustment -- and he's a physical guy."

Nolan is fully aware of that and so far, hasn't been as physical as he can be.

"I'm trying to pick my spots," he said, "because it's such a flow game now, that when you get hit, you want to make sure that guy doesn't beat you up the ice. I've been paying a little more attention to that part of the game. I haven't been playing as physically as I'd like to right now, but I'm trying to play smarter defensively and make sure I'm not caught out of position."

And it doesn't do any harm to be playing for an understanding coach like Gretzky

"He is great," Nolan said. "To me, in my eyes, he was the greatest player to play the game; and now he's a coach. You never stop learning in this game, and to have a guy like that behind the bench and giving you advice, and helping you apply it on the ice, I think it's great."

There were times when Nolan had to face up to the fact that he might never make it back.

"I wasn't sure," he said, "especially after the second surgery. I didn't know what was going to happen. It took such a long time to heal. It took a lot longer than the doctors expected -- and what I expected for sure. It got real frustrating."

But he had made up his mind that he wasn't going to attempt a comeback until the knee was totally repaired.

"At the trading deadline last year, I was real close," he said. "I wasn't 100%, but I thought I was in the low 90s with the knee. I had San Jose and other teams calling me. But if a team is going to invest in me, I want to make sure I can be at 100% and give it back to them.

"I didn't want to come back at 90% and get hurt again and then it's all over from there. At the time, it was disappointing, but the way I feel right now, I made the right move."

And soon, the points will come to prove it.


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