When he was a kid, growing up in Ontario, Claude Noel would plop himself down in front of the television, with his Montreal Canadiens bobblehead doll at his side, and pour his heart into cheering for his favourite team.
“I remember listening to a french announcer back in the late ’50s, early ’60s, Rene Lecavalier,” Noel recalled Friday, two days before his Winnipeg Jets take on his one-time favourite team at MTS Centre.
“We were a French-Canadian family and it was great.”
Noel, 55, is about to embark on his first season as an NHL head coach (not counting 24 games as an interim coach with Columbus) but, as his memories of watching hockey with his family a half a century ago would attest, this is far from his first rodeo.
Noel has more than 20 years of head coaching experience and he is leaning on it to project a calm image just 48 hours before leading the reborn Jets into a season that has already generated Stanley Cup levels of excitement among the faithful.
“It’s going to be great,” Noel said of Sunday’s season opener. “I don’t think I’m going to be any more nervous for that game than any other. A game’s a game. I’m going to be anxious like I was when I played my first game when I was five years old. It’s another accomplishment for me so I’m going to be excited, but I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got players that will probably need to be calmed down from excitement.”
One of Noel’s methods for settling the players down is to give each of them a reassuring pat on the back every time they head out on the ice for a game and that calming influence is obviously going to be key, especially in a hockey market that is treating them like rock stars.
Adrenaline and nerves are sure to be running high Sunday and on many nights this season, but judging from his interactions with players and media so far, the personable coach with the quick wit has an innate ability to keep situations light.
“It’s hard to not have fun playing hockey for Claude Noel,” said Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger, who worked with Noel in the Manitoba Moose organization last season.
“He’s a little bit quirky, there’s no doubt about that. He’s a real passionate, energetic guy who loves to bring a lot of joy to the rink every day. The old slogan is don’t get too high and don’t get too low ... Claude never gets low. He probably stays high too long.”
That seems fitting given the high Winnipeg has been on since the Jets touched down for this return engagement. But how will it translate in terms of results on the ice?
“He has a style where we are coming to the rink every day to enjoy what we are doing,” defenceman Ron Hainsey said.
“Obviously, the best way to do that is to win hockey games. But he expects us to try to get better every day and for the team to improve every day and have fun doing that.”
That sounds like a decent flight plan for these Jets and Noel’s track record suggests it’s a tried and true method. In his last six seasons as a head coach in the minors, his teams had at least 40 wins every time. He coached the Milwaukee Admirals to an AHL championship in 2003-04.
“He’s a good, good person, he works extremely hard and his will to win and his ability to win has been very strong and evident,” Heisinger said.
“Claude’s strength has always been to get a lot out of teams and a lot out of his players and I don’t see that this opportunity will be any different.”
Jets centre Bryan Little said with Noel, it’s all about balance.
“He’s stern and serious at one time and joking around with the team the next,” Little said. “He’s definitely got a leadership and coaching style that suits this team.”
A straight-talker, Noel has repeatedly expressed how much he likes this Jets team and clearly his hopes for a big season are high.
There would be no better way to start than to win Sunday, with his mom Alice and sisters Claudette and Carol in attendance for a game against the family’s old favourite — the Montreal Canadiens.