The phone rings and the voice on the other end is as unmistakable as the greeting. "Shooter, what's happening?" sings Claude Noel. "How was Mexico? I should have gone with you."
Noel is laughing, referring to the fact I left for a family vacation in Mexico days before he was fired by the Winnipeg Jets.
It's been almost three months since Noel was dismissed and he's kept a low profile, disappearing to Arizona for more than two months. He returned to Winnipeg last week to pack up his house and prepare it for sale. Noel agreed to an exclusive interview with the Free Press, his first since being fired by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.
Noel, who compiled an 80-79-18 record over parts of three seasons leading the Jets, agreed to talk about his past, present and future. Nothing indivdually specific about his previous employers or players. He's got his views on who let him down and who didn't do enough -- and he includes himself in both groups -- but he wouldn't share them on this day.
Cheveldayoff admitted last week to making mistakes during Noel's watch and not doing enough to help his coach.
What became clear during Noel's tenure and has been affirmed under the Paul Maurice watch, is the players in Winnipeg haven't felt enough pressure from within the organization. Maurice has said repeatedly the team doesn't work hard enough and that they're not at the fitness level he expects of NHL players.
Cheveldayoff was slow to offer Noel an extension last summer and it got plenty of play in the media. In retrospect, it was the beginning of the end for Noel.
The players, rightly or wrongly, were allowed to believe management wasn't fully behind the coach.
When Evander Kane openly challenged Noel in Chicago over being kept out of the lineup due to injury, it was clear the players no longer respected Noel's authority. It killed any chance he had of succeeding.
'There's no question that I think I can. I know I can. I don't have confidence issues from that standpoint'
After a couple of phone calls and text messages negotiating the terms of an interview and a location, Noel arrived at a Tuxedo coffee shop dressed casually in jeans and a windbreaker. The 58-year-old was relaxed and comfortable with where he's at today. He's processed his firing and gone through a "grieving period."
Noel ordered a decaf coffee and was just sitting down to talk when a woman of about 40 approached to ask if he was indeed, Claude Noel. He smiled a "yes" and during a short chat, she thanked him for what he did for Winnipeg, adding she was disappointed when he was fired. "That's the business and I'll be OK," said Noel, before posing for a photograph.
A few times during an hour-plus conversation, Noel offered observations about a number of Jets games from recent weeks. Oh, yes, he's been watching. But he's had enough of watching hockey on TV, and he's ready to get back in the game. The first step is to try his hand at broadcasting and he'll be joining TSN's panel to break down Stanley Cup playoff action.
This isn't the first time TSN has asked, but Noel had previously declined. This time, however, it's a chance to watch games and try his hand at something new.
Noel said he wants to coach again and while he's willing to work as an assistant in the NHL, says he prefers being a head coach and he isn't against going back to the AHL to start anew.
Here's Claude Noel on life during and after the Winnipeg Jets:
FP: Will you coach again in the NHL?
CN: There's no question that I think I can. I know I can. I don't have confidence issues from that standpoint. It will be interesting to see if that opportunity exists. There would have to be some special circumstances on both sides for that to happen. We'll see what goes on. I have another year (on my Jets contract). I would rather be working in the fall, so that's what we will look at. I have to be smart enough to look at this in a lot of different ways. Who would I be working with? What would I be doing? Would I continue to learn? That's important to me. I don't know if I would take any situation just for the sake of it.
FP: Would you go back to the AHL? Would you take an assistant job in the NHL?
CN: I would (go to the American league) in some places. Because I love to teach and coach. I would be an assistant, I would look at that again. I would go to the KHL, but not in the near future. I don't think I'm there yet, but I would look at Europe at some point. I'm not that young, and I have a coaching life of... I don't know how many years left.
'I don't know that there is a lot I would do differently. It's just the way it went, it's the way it had to go'
FP: Were you surprised when you were dismissed?
CN: I wasn't really surprised. I've been around long enough to know. It has nothing to do with the reports in the media. You just know, you sense it. You see how things are going. At the end of the day, it's really the response of the team and how that's all going, I think that it was due for a change. I saw it wasn't going in the direction I wanted or what we wanted. When things like this happen, you can look around and do all sorts of things. One of the things that I find is a strength of mine is my ability to have an honest assessment of what has taken place and how I did. When thing like that happen, there's a lot of room to blame a lot of people. I'm certainly not sitting here beating myself up.
FP: What would you have done differently?
CN: There are some things that took place that circumstances ended up certain ways. Some of the decision you make, looking back at the time to reassess and replay it, I don't know that there is a lot I would do differently. It's just the way it went, it's the way it had to go. I'm not one to just do things off the cuff, I'm a calculator and I have given it a lot of thought in all the areas of 'how to do some things.' You have to ask yourself 'Why? Why didn't they buy what you're selling?'
You think it fits, you hope it will fit, but for some reason it just doesn't. At the end of the day, that happens with everybody. Your job, to some degree, is simple. You've got to get your team to play hard and consistently. Sometimes they are not ready, sometimes there's some things in the way. Sometimes there's other factors. I've never had that issue in teams I've had. They've always bought, you know, and I've always been able to sell it. That's one of my strengths. The question is 'what was in the way?' or 'how come they didn't buy in?' I think Paul (Maurice) has done a real good job, and it looks like he's got their ear. That's what happens with the change too, is that the focus becomes on the players, and that's good because they look like they've played quite a bit better.
FP: Can the Jets, as they are currently constructed, be a playoff team next year?
CN: First of all, they're in a tough conference. I think that they can (be a playoff team) but some people are going to have to step up and have good years. Some are going to have to step up and take a bite. To make yourself accountable to each other, take a bite, and say 'we've had enough.' I'm saying that of the players. You just have to take hold of the team. I felt, when I had this team, we could make the playoffs. But we needed to be better, and stronger in some areas. It's got to hurt more to lose. You have to be tired of it. You gotta be fed up. They have to decide what they're going to do. I think they're capable, but some people are going to have to have good years
FP: Did you like being coach of the Winnipeg Jets?
CN: I loved it. I wouldn't change it for the world. It was a great experience. Now you have to be realistic -- who in their right mind could not sit there and say 'what kind of an experience was this?' I got a chance to take a team from Atlanta, that wasn't winning. I felt I knew what that was like because I came from an organization in Columbus that was pretty much the same. I felt I could make a difference and make a change. I got to coach in a Canadian market that was real frenzied and very passionate, which I thought was fabulous. I wouldn't change it for the world. I look back at three years, what an experience. I was blessed. There's 30 teams in the NHL and I got to coach one of them in Canada. What I love about Winnipeg is the passion, the people and the environment. It's a perfect place. Yeah, they want to win but you know what? They're (fans) realistic. For me, they want to be proud of their team and how they work. They know there's a process. They're intelligent and I think it's a great place to play.
FP: Do you believe there's a stigma among players not wanting to come to Winnipeg that is working against hockey team?
CN: I don't believe that. It is what it is. I think you're going to get people that don't want to be here, or other places. And that's okay. It's just an obstacle that you have as a management team. There are people that do want to be here. There are players that want to play in a passionate place, where hockey's important. The pool of players may be diminished, and that's a challenge. But the players that do come here and want to come here, they're all in. And the people will be behind them and support them. They could be all in somewhere else, but they're anonymous. So I disagree with that stigma toward Winnipeg. I think Winnipeg is a great place to play.
FP: What if you're good at TV?
CN: I'm only dabbling my toe in there. I'm going in there to learn and to get a feel for what it's like on the other side of the fence. I'm taking it one step at a time. I'm not taking this as a career move. I see myself as a hockey coach, not a media person. I just want to do it because it gives me an opportunity to grow, puts me out there. It gets me back in the game. I'm digging in to watch games and I'm putting down lines and getting some ideas, and that's healthy for me. If I don't do that, I don't exist well. I have to be on the move that way. I'm watching the games last night and reading other people's opinions, and I'm making my own. I need that. It stirs things up.
FP: How emotional of an experience was getting fired ?
CN: I did cry but not there. I felt it was coming. I knew what was happening. I wasn't shocked by it. It was a short meeting with Kevin and we didn't talk much about it. I had some questions. Just the nuts and bolts. I held my head high. Where it was emotional for me, it was tough to go in the office that evening and pack my stuff. And then walk around the locker-room one last time. I was alone there. It was hard.
FP: Did you feel a sense of relief when you were fired?
CN: Not really relief. It took me about three weeks or so to do deal with myself. Then I woke up one day and said the grieving period is over, and we have to move on.
I wasn't really angry, it's part of the grief, yes. You can't see clearly, you start blaming anything and everything. I've been through this process before, so I had an idea. You have to be able to see clearly in how you deal with the truth. You have to be honest with yourself and say 'how much of it was you?' I wrestled a bit too, and I was blaming here and there, and I had to go back and say 'Better look here. Could you, and should you have?' I've done that before. Before, it took me over a year to sort it out. Back then, I didn't want to deal with some things. But I was way better this time, and I was able to look more clearly. It's maturity and being tougher.
FP: What was your favourite moment during your time with the Jets?
CN: To me, a lot of the favourite moments were associated with the pride part of things. Pride, meaning, the way we were able to play. I mean the home opener was really something, (though) we didn't play well. But we played some good games at home in the two-and-a-half years. Those games where we played well, I'm proud. I'm proud of the team. I had a quote in the room that said, 'Be proud of your effort today.' It's your body of work. It brings you pride. It's interesting when you're standing behind your team while they're playing, and you know you're good. Or you know you're playing well, and you know everyone is pushing in the same direction, there's no better feeling than that.
FP: Do you have a message to Winnipeg?
CN: I loved the support. Thank you for the support. The people are fabulous. My family and I were here and I don't think we could have been treated better. People are respectful, they never came to give their opinion, nothing negative. It was all support. Or they would abstain from commenting. They would know and feel your pain and leave you alone. That was best, you could go out and they were with you. They felt the pain, and I thought they were fabulous.
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