Go in peace, Claude Noel. You are already missed.
The head coach of the Winnipeg Jets – a man who once sang In-a-gadda-da-vida, Baby in a press conference – was fired Sunday morning for all sorts of reasons, none of which makes total sense but all of which make some.
Noel’s overall record after nearly three years of guiding the re-born Jets stands at 80-79-18, but five straight losses and a 19-23-5 record this season doomed him and popular assistant coach Perry Pearn.
Some are saying the coaches did not implement the right system. Some say they did not put the right players in the right place. (Is Dustin Byfuglien a defenceman or is he a forward?) Some say the shelf life of even a coach who is personable, self-deprecating and often very funny cannot go on forever.
The truth is that the Winnipeg Jets aren’t quite as good as a restless fan base and management team would like them to be. As veteran Olli Jokinen so perfectly put it when he met with reporters after Sunday practice was called off, “You can’t change 25 players.” But you sure can change coaches.
So out with the old, Noel, and in with the new, or at least refurbished, Paul Maurice, late of TSN (waiting room for fired and future NHL coaches), the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes.
The 46-year-old Maurice flew into Winnipeg Sunday with a lifetime 460-457-167 NHL record, almost exactly the same winning percentage that Noel, 58, departs with – but Maurice, of course, is a fresh face, and the Jets, beyond dispute, need a fresh start.
That, clearly, is what general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff decided. There were mitigating circumstances – the Jets had moved into the much-tougher Western Conference this season; injuries to key players had taken a toll. But the reality was that the team that had taken an admirable run at a playoff spot last spring was today in 12th place, 10 points out of the last playoff spot.
“We envisioned that we would be certainly higher in the standings,” Chevaldayoff told an afternoon news conference.
The Jets organization, True North Sports & Entertainment, headed by local businessman Mark Chipman, had a deserved reputation for great loyalty. Craig Heisinger, who had started in hockey as the equipment manager of the Fort Garry Blues junior team, had risen to become GM of the minor-league Manitoba Moose, and True North had no hesitation in naming him senior VP and director of hockey operations with the Jets. Noel had been the coach of the Moose.
Chipman knew that the honeymoon could not last forever, but it had proved remarkably resilient in a city grateful just to have the NHL back after the original Jets departed for Phoenix in 1996.
But fan and media impatience had taken hold this season. Earlier this month, the Jets had gone down 4-3 to the Senators in Ottawa, ending a modest Winnipeg streak and sending the Senators on their first good winning run of the season. The look on the highly competitive Chipman’s face as he stood, back against the wall, outside the Jets’ dressingroom spoke volumes. Coming close no longer cut it.
There had been a time when the chatty, entertaining Noel could deflect some of that. “We’ve given up seven goals in two games and we haven’t scored one,” he said after one dry spell. “They’re playing chess and we’re playing checkers.”
Early in the team’s first year, his Jets had narrowly defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in a game that featured 17 goals. Noel’s response should have been sent directly to Bartlett’s: “I thought to myself, ‘Self, you’re a sick man trying to make logic of that.’”
Noel’s penchant for talking had been both a plus and a minus for the club. He entertained at pressers but could also be indiscreet. At the end of the 2011-12 season, he thought he was having a harmless chat with a season-ticket-holder at a local café only to find out that the fan had raced home, written down the coach’s comments and sent them out to various people. Noel had concerns about the goaltending, thought certain players lacked motivation and believed the team had imported “a losing culture” from Atlanta, where it had previously been called the Thrashers.
He simply spoke to the truth: “We don’t have enough top-line talent to match up against the top teams.”
The organization tried to control Noel and was largely successful. For the most part, he could only be questioned at formal press conferences. Every word was taped. Francophone reporters were told the native of Northern Ontario had “lost his French,” which was simply not so, as a visit from his mother soon proved.
Noel now lives on YouTube, where his post-game quotes will continue to run for some time. Given his gift of the gab, he is surely headed for the coach’s holding room at TSN for a stint before someone else’s shelf life is up and the call goes out for something fresh, something new.
“I live in a house with mirrors,” he had once said about where he searched for explanations when things were going badly. “So that’s the first place I look.”
It is where the Jets players also need to look. What they will see is a team that isn’t particularly good but should be better than it is.
“It’s not fair,” Chevaldayoff said after he had done the dirty deed to Claude Noel. “It’s a great game – and it’s a lousy business sometimes.”
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