Claude Noel looks down at his hands, but there is no answer there.
The head coach of the Winnipeg Jets has been asked to look into the future – a week, even a couple of days – but he cannot.
“Don’t know,” he says. “I don’t have a ball here.”
The question has to do with upcoming cuts to the training camp roster – the first 20 players were dispatched earlier in the morning – but really it is the future far beyond the obvious cuts that require a crystal ball.
At some point down the line, one of the two newspapers in town will not be able to resist the headline “No Joy in Joyland.”
“Joy in Joyland” is a favoured phrase of the life-long minor-league coach from Kirkland Lake, Ont. He says he wants a happy environment, wants players who are having fun, and certainly that has been the case in this brand-new NHL franchise that is only two weeks into its first training camp.
At some point, however, someone will say or write “No Joy in Joyland,” with or without apologies to Ernest Lawrence Thayer. It is not only too easy a headline to avoid, it is too certain a reality to ignore.
Such are the vagaries of coaching in the NHL. Coaches, it is endlessly said, are hired to be fired. No one knows this better than Noel himself, who had his first brief flirt with being an NHL head coach when the Columbus Blue Jackets relieved Ken Hitchcock of his duties and put Noel in for the final 24 games of the 2009-10 season.
No one knows how long the honeymoon will last in Winnipeg following the Thrashers’ divorce from Atlanta. Perhaps as long as the five-year commitment season-ticket holders in Winnipeg had to put down. But not likely.
This is a Canadian city with savvy hockey fans. At some point, they will start looking for results from a team that has been around a long time, has a core of good young players, but has never, ever won a single playoff match and last year missed the playoffs altogether.
Hockey teams invariably catch waves during a season. They go through crests and troughs. A string of losses and there will quickly be little joy to find. Hockey history is filled with despair-filled streaks – the Thrashers went on one themselves less than a year ago, effectively ending what at Christmas had been a playoff hope.
So, in reality, there were not only 60-plus players trying out for the Winnipeg Jets; there was one 55-year-old coach.
Noel came to Winnipeg with excellent minor-league credentials: coach of the year in the AHL, coach of the year in the ECHL. He fared well with the Manitoba Moose here a year ago, so he knows the arena and he knows the fans.
But he is only slowly getting to know the players.
The Thrashers left behind a coach most of them loved: Craig Ramsay. Ramsay is renowned as a “player’s coach,” who treats everyone as an individual and believes each player has different abilities that can be tapped into. He likes to unleash talent and see where it goes. Players who have prospered under him – new captain Andrew Ladd, converted defenceman Dustin Byfuglien – swear by him.
But that was then and this is now. Noel’s past connections with the likes of Hitchcock and his structured game plans so far might suggest he falls into the micromanaging coach’s mould set by Jacques Lemaire and followed by so many other modern NHL coaches. At their best, they make teams much better. At their worst, they can make certain players feel like they are playing a table-top game.
From what Byfuglien has shown so far in exhibition play, he skates to his own drummer. Even on a penalty kill he might drift into a far corner or in front of the opposition net. He plays by intuition, not plan. So far.
It will be a fascinating early study of the Winnipeg Jets.
What sort of NHL coach is Claude Noel?
What sort of NHL player will Dustin Byfuglien be?
If only we all had a crystal ball.