WINNIPEG – Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel was talking about his team’s struggles late last month as success started to become scarcer on the ice, but he might have been summarizing his own career.
“If it was easy, everybody would be at the top,” he said after the Jets dropped two in a row to their Southeast Division rivals the Washington Capitals.
“You have to earn your way to the top.”
Now, after winning three in a row to put themselves back in the hunt for an elusive playoff spot, Noel and the Jets are earning their way game by game and have the bruises to show it certainly isn’t easy.
With almost 40 years in professional hockey, 20 as a coach, Noel is where he wants to be as head coach of an NHL team. You could never call him an overnight success.
Born in Kirkland Lake, Ont., on Halloween in 1955 (so much for the last name), Noel’s dreams of the NHL as a player fell short. He played most of his pro hockey with a series of AHL and IHL teams.
It included five seasons as a centre with the AHL’s Hershey Bears, and he helped the team win a Calder Cup in 1980. In 1979-80 he signed as a free agent with the Washington Capitals, although he only played in seven games.
His playing career ended in 1988 and his coaching career began in earnest, once again mostly with ECHL, IHL and AHL teams. As a coach he won another Calder and also coach-of-the-year honours with the Milwaukee Admirals.
He finally made the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets, including part of a season as interim head coach after Ken Hitchcock was fired in February 2010.
Noel went back to the AHL to lead the Manitoba Moose for their last season as the farm team of the Vancouver Canucks.
He was in the right place, at the right time, to land the job with the new Winnipeg Jets organization as their first head coach for the 2011-12 season.
The Jets admired his strengths as a teacher for a young team that had made the playoffs exactly once during its history in Atlanta.
Teaching is something he tries to do, and like many good teachers he has a gentle, self-deprecating sense of humour. But he also brings a player’s understanding to his ability to effect change.
“You try to but you know you don’t go on the ice, the players go on the ice,” he says.
“It’s way different playing than it is being a coach. . . You have a way different feel for what’s actually going on on the ice than you do when you’re behind the bench.”
When his top lines were sputtering a few games ago, for example, he said there was no need to belabour the fact.
“If I find a way that I can help them I would and if that’s something that relates to either coaching or position-wise, I’d try to help them. Otherwise, I don’t think you have to spell it out to them.”
He isn’t afraid to act. He has benched players when they don’t take advice.
That happened to star forward Evander Kane last season. He showed up this season with some added muscle and a more physical presence on the ice that has turned him into one of the team’s biggest assets.
Alexander Burmistrov got the same treatment this season when he failed to heed the call to play a more north-south style of game.
Fortunately for the Jets, a lot of things have been going right lately.
Ondrej Pavelec’s goaltending continues to shine. Their top forwards are producing again and they’ve kicked whatever jinx seemed to limit success on home ice, a strange reversal from last season’s road woes.
But they’re far from where they could be, says the team’s coach.
On defence for example, an area he stressed this season, there have been positive results but the markers don’t show huge change.
“When you look at goals for and against, you’d like to be on the plus side of that equation and we’re not,” says Noel.
The latest NHL numbers show Winnipeg with 2.57 goals for and 2.88 goals against. Last season’s numbers were 2.70 and 2.95.
“It’s not really changed a whole lot from last year,” Noel says. “As much as we’re doing some things better, we’re still not on the right side of that equation.”
Their power play has also sagged this year. At 12.8 per cent they rank only above the Buffalo Sabres.
Inconsistent is the best way to describe their play, but it’s not a problem unique to the Jets in this lockout-shortened season.
“I don’t know where it’s going to go, that’s why you’ve got to win,” says Noel of the handful of games remaining.
“Something’s going to jar lose, you’ve just got to win, there are no other choices.”
But with the Jets getting a five-day breather before facing Tampa Bay for the fourth game of their six-game home stand, a coach who stresses hard work has some slightly different advice for his players.
“Get away from the rink, just stay away. It’s mandatory away.”