Wang and a prayer

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 11:18 AM ET

The New York Islanders were supposed to be a laughingstock, pure, clueless slapstick, the likes of which hadn't been seen in pro sports since the CFL stumbled its way into the United States.

Charles Wang (pronounced Wong) hires Neil Smith to replace GM Mike Milbury, fires him 40 days later - before the season even starts - and gives the job to backup goalie Garth Snow, who has absolutely no experience.

He signs a 25-year-old goalie with a 58-62-13 lifetime record to a 15-year contract (seeing as how Alexei Yashin's 10-year deal worked out so well), and blows nine years worth of dust off head coach Ted Nolan.

NOT MUCH WRONG

Then he signs Tom Poti.

What could go wrong (pronounced wrang)?

Well, so far, other than a knee injury to Yashin, who's been terrific this year, not much.

"We perceived ourselves to be a lot better than people gave us credit for," said Snow, whose team is a few games over .500 and well in the hunt for a playoff spot at the quarter pole. "I believed that if all the players played up to their capabilities we had a good enough group to win a Stanley Cup.

"People laughed at me when I said that in September, but it's something I firmly believed."

They're probably still laughing at that one, but it's better than the whole team being a joke. Wang took a big chance on Snow and Nolan, and so far, so good.

"When I was first offered the position I was as shocked and surprised as everyone else," said Snow, who played 20 games for the Isles last season. "But (Wang) has always been a person who thinks outside the box. If he believes something is right, he does it. And if he doesn't think it's right, he's not afraid to change it.

"People from the outside perceive it as being done in a strange way, but you have to admire a person who does what he feels is right.''

Enter Nolan, who'd been exiled from John Muckler's Buffalo Sabres and blackballed by the NHL in 1997 for alleged back-channeling, and had all but given up on ever coaching again.

There were some kooky happenings in the Islanders' off-season, and Nolan admits wondering what the heck he was getting into. But he wasn't about to turn down a chance he thought would never come.

"I never, ever dreamed I'd coach again. I just thought it was over,'' said the 48-year-old former Jack Adams winner. "The first two years were very frustrating, not understanding why I was out of the league. Then you say, 'Hey, I have to deal with the hand I was dealt, so stop moping and whining and just do other things.' "

KEEPING BUSY

So he developed the Ted Nolan Foundation, which helps First Nations women pursue an education, he started a youth program aimed at steering children away from drugs and alcohol, he worked with the Assembly of First Nations, coached his son and guest-coached a junior B team that went to the Canadian championships three years in a row. His comeback began last season with the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats.

"I wouldn't have changed the last nine years for anything,'' he said.

"It was very rewarding and I think it made me a better man and a better coach."

But stepping behind the bench again, after all those years away, wasn't easy.

"I was very, very nervous when I started in Moncton. I was wondering if I did lose my skills," he said. "But once the games started, it was almost like I'd never left. Now, here, you're nervous again because this is the National Hockey League and you have to win."

The pre-season laughing-stock, with an Eastern Conference best 2.54 goals-against average, is as competitive as anyone.

And on Tuesday they have a date with Muckler's Ottawa Senators, a game Nolan says won't mean anything more than two points.

"No, that's water under the bridge a long time ago," he said, adding he doesn't have anything to prove to anyone. "Five years ago I had that attitude, come back and prove people wrong. But coming from where I came from, it's not about proving anybody wrong. It's about enjoying the thing that I love to do: coach hockey."


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