Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Claude's court back in session

Noel Winnipeg's answer to Yogi Berra

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He received the loudest cheer as the Winnipeg Jets officially stepped onto the ice for the first time at the MTS Centre Sunday afternoon.

And, if it wouldn't have busted just about every rule in the journalistic code of ethics, he might have been met with a similar welcome from the media when he arrived for his first press conference not long after.

The NHL is back, ladies and gentlemen. And that can mean only one thing:

Claude Noel -- that walking, talking sound bite and a man who could read the collective-bargaining agreement out loud and have a room in stitches -- is back in the house.

"First thing," began the Winnipeg Jets head coach while addressing the press gallery Sunday, "is I want you guys to know how much I missed you guys..."

And off he went filling notebooks with one juicy quote after another. There were laughs at his wisecracks and nodding heads during the deeper moments.

Yes, after a nine-month stint in which he was seldom seen or heard, the Cult of Claude is back and already playing to rave reviews.

"We all missed his press conferences," said Jets winger Blake Wheeler. "That's another thing we've missed and it's going to be great to have that back.

"We all know him and he's as eager as anyone to get back on the ice. He brings a lot of pride into his work and we feed off that. There was a lot of good energy out there today."

That would hardly have been unique across the National Hockey League on Sunday as all 30 teams returned to work. But it's hard to imagine any other city where the head coach, a guy who hasn't lead his team to a playoff berth let alone a Stanley Cup, would be met so warmly.

Noel, a career hockey man who got his first real NHL coaching gig at age 56 when he was hired in 2011, became one of the voices and faces of the Jets' return a year ago.

And his post-game media sessions -- especially after a loss, where his emotion often bubbled over -- became can't-miss TV.

So popular were some of his expressions -- like turnovers being described as "free pizzas" -- they became part of the local hockey vernacular.

But hockey fans and media also came to understand his other side, the serious Claude Noel. This is a man who has a burning desire to push, pull and drag this team into the playoffs and then beyond.

And now -- just like every other coach in the NHL -- he's staring up at this Everest: How to get 26 guys ready not only for the season opener in five days but for a condensed regular season that will be over by April 25.

"I'm very cognizant of the fact that as much as you want to cover, you don't want to overdo it with the players," Noel said. "Sometimes less is more there."

Noel stressed the key to the start of the season will be balancing pushing his team versus risking injury.

But with little time between games for practices and teaching, a lot of what he does this season will simply be about reading his charges to see when he needs to back off and when he needs to bring the hammer down hard.

"For me, I would just like (us) to start walking and behaving like winners," Noel said. "Most times you have to be deserving of being a winner. You earn that right. You get in the playoffs. I'd like us to try and expect to win more. We have to go in expecting to win on the road, expecting more things from each other on the road. That's the attitude difference I'd like us to start thinking about. But a lot of that is earned.

"Teams that are constantly above the line and in the playoffs, that just becomes the normal, everyday existence for them.

"We haven't reached that point yet."

When Noel was finally done he wrapped up his session with:

"Thanks guys. Nice to see you again."

Stepping away from the podium, he waited for a response from the assembled press for a nanosecond, grinned and then answered his own parting remark as he exited.

"You, too, Claude."

More smiles. More laughter.

Hockey is back. Claude Noel is back, thank heavens. It's been far too long.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2013 C1

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