COLUMBUS, Ohio – Since becoming the interim head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets a week ago, Claude Noel has received over 1,000 calls, texts and emails offering congratulations.
Some are from folks back home in Kirkland Lake, Ont., or players and coaches dating back to his long career beating the bushes of the AHL, ECHL and practically every other HL. Others? He’s not so sure.
“You know what’s wild? People send me texts with the number but no name – and I don’t know who it is!” Noel said, laughing at himself. “There might be 20 per cent that are just numbers.”
It’s a vintage Claude moment. As an assistant under Ken Hitchcock, who was fired after the Blue Jackets got off to a miserable 22-27-9 start this season, the players really liked Noel. He joked with them, acted up, played around and also worked hard with them.
He has his own way of saying things. He refers to players as “stallions.” He is constantly talking about letting go and “freeing the mind.” Offensive players aren’t forwards, wings or centres, they’re “shooters.”
But in the Noel dictionary, the most important word is among the shortest.
“That’s his big word – joy. He’s been saying it all year long,” goalie Steve Mason said.
Now he’s saying it as the head man, at least for the remaining 22 games this season. He’s off to a 2-0 start heading into Wednesday night’s game against San Jose, the top team in the Western Conference.
“He’s kind of serious with us,” captain Rick Nash said. “When he was an assistant coach he was a bit more fun.
“Now he’s more serious, and he has to be. In here, he’s all business.”
Noel, 54, said he hasn’t changed personalities. Perhaps his new position means he’s not the players’ best buddy anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s not the same person.
“I can still be that way, but not to the level they saw me as an assistant,” he said, sipping a bottle of water in his office after Tuesday’s workout. “They’ll see that again. They might not see that level again in this hockey arena. Maybe at the end of the season.”
His boss didn’t hire him because he was popular with the players. Noel, a veteran coach in the minors, also knows what he’s doing behind the bench and in the dressing room.
“I didn’t know about ‘joy’ and ‘free the mind’ and all the other phrases he’s grown fond of using,” general manager Scott Howson said on the day he promoted Noel. “I just knew that he was a good coach who has had tremendous success at the AHL level.
“It was more his track record and the people I know who knew him well along the way.”
At the end of the season, Howson will evaluate Noel’s performance and consider whether to knock the “interim” off his job title. If the Blue Jackets keep playing the way they have the last two games, winning by a combined 6-1 over Dallas and Buffalo, Noel will make Howson’s decision a difficult one.
Noel grew up in a small Ontario town, the son of a miner and a housewife who raised Claude, a brother and two sisters. He still gets emotional when he thinks back to the day in 1981 when he was playing for the AHL Hershey Bears and his then-coach Bryan Murray (now GM of the Ottawa Senators) broke the news that Noel’s father had died.
“The flight home was gut-wrenching,” Noel said, his voice cracking almost three decades later.
As a player, he toiled for remote outposts before finally getting a taste of the NHL, playing seven games with the Washington Capitals in 1980. He never made it back, spending most of the next 10 years plying his trade before eventually starting as a coach on the bottom rungs of the pro ladder.
Noel, who came to Columbus as an assistant under Hitchcock in 2007, laughed when asked if he thought he could maintain his unbeaten record.
“The fact that we’ve only played two games, I would remember that,” he said. “But if you ask me in game 12, I probably won’t know what our record is. I don’t deal in records.”
What he’s looking for in the 24 games he’s been given as interim coach is something more than wins.
“My coaching philosophy is really simple: I’m governed by getting better every day,” he said.
Despite the catchwords and jokes, he isn’t all fun and games as a head coach. The players say he’s more of a taskmaster than Hitchcock, a kind and intelligent man who didn’t add a whole lot of levity.
“He’s a lot stricter than Hitch ever was,” forward R.J. Umberger said. “There’s more rules.”
So far, even the veterans are buying into what he’s selling – an oil-and-water mix of discipline, having fun, taking your job seriously and playing loose.
“Everybody looks at Claude as a new face,” forward Raffi Torres said. “You just kind of forget the fact that he was an assistant coach for a while and let him do it. He’s won at other levels. He knows what he’s talking about.”