St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock smiles when he is asked about the first time he met Claude Noel, the coach of the Winnipeg Jets.
It happened in 1993 shortly after Hitchock had been fired as an assistant coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. He was on his way to Kalamazoo, Mich., to become coach of the Kalamazoo Wings of the International Hockey League, a farm team of the NHL’s Dallas Stars. Hitchcock needed an assistant and he had several candidates in mind. But some officials at the Stars told him about Noel, who was coaching the IHL’s Dayton Bombers at the time, which also had a relationship with Dallas.
“I knew nothing about him,” Hitchcock recalled on Friday as the Blues, 37-17-7, prepared to meet the Jets, 30-26-7, on Saturday at the MTS Centre.
Hitchcock arranged to meet Noel at the Philadelphia airport.
“The first question I asked him was ‘What did you do down there?,” Hitchcock said. “And he gave me this list of all these menial tasks that he had to do and I thought I like this because he was willing to do all the dirty stuff and doesn’t complain about it. He was the first guy I interviewed and he was the last guy.”
That was the start of a lengthy coaching relationship. Noel and Hitchcock spent two years at Kalamazoo before Noel took over the top job in Michigan when Hitchcock was named coach of the Stars in 1996. They remained in touch for two more years, as the Wings remained the Stars’ farm team.
After going their separate ways in the coaching world, they hooked up again in 2006 for three years when Hitchcock became head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets and hired Noel as an assistant.
“He’s almost a throw back to the way coaches use to be,” Hitchcock said of Noel. He described the Jets coach is a classic rink rat, someone who had spent most of his life in and around hockey, as a minor-league player and a coach at many levels. He said Noel often comes across as quirky and odd, but that only belies his keen shrewdness.
“I found him to be unbelievably resourceful. He wasn’t afraid to do the dirtiest of dirty work,” Hitchcock said. “He wasn’t afraid to go and do the most menial tasks. He’d set up the bowling tournament. He’d set up the travel. He’d look after the meals. He’d do anything for the team and that’s what impressed me.”
Referring to Noel’s colourful press conferences, Hitchcock laughed and said: “I think he should charge admission for them to be honest with you.”
Noel said he also didn’t hesitate to take the job in Michigan once he met Hitchcock.
“I just had to go there this was going to be a better learning process,” Noel recalled Friday. Noel said Hitchcock taught him how to run practices, what drills to use and how to manage players. “It’s hard to get those types of lessons unless you work with somebody like that. You don’t get that out of coaching clinics.”
The two will face off against each other for the first time as NHL coaches on Saturday. And both the Jets and Blues are performing better than many expected. In many ways the game will be mentor versus student.
It’ll be interesting,” Noel said. “He’ll want to get match ups I’m sure. And he’s sharp that way. So that’s good. It raises the bar. It makes it fun.”