Claude Noel got his first taste of the NHL in 1979-1980 as a player with the Washington Capitals. Since then he has travelled a long, winding road back to the ‘Big League’ where he has found an ideal fit as the Head Coach of the Winnipeg Jets.
His career path has taken him as far away as Austria, where he got his first taste of coaching in an unconventional manner. His journey also included driving 18 hours from Ontario to Roanoke just for the chance to interview for a coaching job. Persistence, and a bourgeoning knowledge of the game and what it takes to win have brought Noel to his sought-after spot behind the Jets’ bench.
A native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Noel’s trip through the hockey ranks followed the tried-and-true pattern set forth by many before him: play first, coach later. However, the way he made the switch is anything but traditional.
Noel had played professionally for four seasons by the time the 1979-80 campaign rolled around. This season would provide two fantastic growing experiences for the shifty playmaking forward. In 1979-80, Noel realized a lifelong dream when he cracked an NHL lineup, suiting up for a stint with the Washington Capitals as a 25 year old. Later that year he would return to the AHL to help lead the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup.
Three years later, Noel was again hoisting a championship trophy. This time, it was the IHL’s Calder Cup after going all the way with the Toledo Goaldiggers.
Experiencing great success in these two seasons helped shape Noel’s career moving forward.
“It taught me what you have to do to win, and how important the group dynamic is,” says Noel. “The room needs to be strong. You can win some games with skill, but until the room becomes one, and is driven by a strong leadership group, then you don’t have what it takes. From this knowledge I have developed my own style, and it has led to pretty good success in my coaching career.”
The room needs to be strong. You can win some games with skill, but until the room becomes one, and is driven by a strong leadership group, then you don't have what it takes. From this knowledge I have developed my own style, and it has led to pretty good success in my coaching career. - Claude Noel
That coaching career got off the ground a little earlier than Noel had anticipated. At the age of 27, and nowhere near the end of his playing career having just come off a 124 point championship season in Toledo in 1982-83, Noel decided to play a season in Salzburg, Austria. It was at this point that he received an interesting phone call.
“(The team) called and asked “would you like to coach the team, in addition to being a player?” says Noel. “I hadn’t given a lot of thought to coaching at that time. I knew I had interest in continuing in hockey as long as possible. So I decided I would give it a try. It was a player-Head Coach position, and it really helped me to see the game from another angle, and vaulted me into going forward with coaching later on down the road.”
After returning home to North America the next season, Noel rejoined the Goaldiggers as a player-Assistant Coach, further developing his growth as a bench boss. He was traded to the Kalamazoo Wings in 1985-86 before finishing his playing career up in 1987-88 with the Milwaukee Admirals.
For the next two years Noel went back to his home province of Ontario to coach junior hockey with the North Bay Centennials, while being able to spend time with his two kids, aged two and four at the time. In 1990, the itch to coach in the pros led Noel on the 18 hour drive down to Roanoke to interview for the Head Coach position with the Roanoke Valley Rebels of the ECHL. Luckily the trek was not in vain, as Noel landed his first North American professional head coaching gig. After a season in Roanoke, Noel moved on to coach the Dayton Bombers.
“Where I benefitted the most from my time in Dayton was working for what turned out to be one of my better friends in a man named Bud Gingher, who owned the team,” says Noel. “He was very influential in my life, because of his business savvy, so he was not only able to teach me about coaching, but also about managing a team.”
Noel then moved on to become an assistant coach in Kalamazoo, where he had played near the end of his career. For the second consecutive stop on his coaching journey, Noel met an individual who would immensely help his career growth.
“Ken Hitchcock was the Head Coach,” says Noel. “That situation took coaching to a whole different level for me, because Ken has such a brilliant hockey mind. He is probably the person I learned the most from. I really have a lot of respect for Ken.”
Noel succeeded Hitchcock as Head Coach of the K-Wings, in 1996, where he continued to develop his coaching style for two years. He then joined another IHL team where he once played, when he took an Assistant Coaching position with the Milwaukee Admirals. After four years in Milwaukee, followed by a successful season as Head Coach in the ECHL with the Toledo Storm, Noel returned to Milwaukee, now in the AHL, this time as the Head Coach. The previous five seasons effectively put the head man on a path to success in his new role.
“Familiarity with Nashville Predators system (the NHL affiliate of the Admirals) really helped me, as it minimized the adjustment period when I came back in 2003 as Head Coach,” says Noel. “I was really ready to be a Head Coach at the AHL level. The 2002-03 season in Toledo really defined me as a Head Coach. The systems I used worked there, and we won games. I moved on to Milwaukee, implemented the same systems and techniques, and we won there too.”
Win, Milwaukee did indeed. In his first season at the helm of the Admirals, Noel won another Calder Cup. In each of his four seasons as Head Coach in Milwaukee, they would win no fewer than 41 games. After a sterling tenure as a Head Coach in the AHL, Noel was ready to get back to the NHL. He got the call from the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he was once again reunited with Hitchcock.
I couldn't be happier, or in a better place. I've waited a long time for this, and it has turned out to be worth the wait. This is a gem of a place to coach. - Claude Noel
“The three years in Columbus was a really good experience,” says Noel. “I really got to know the league, which as an Assistant Coach is very important if you want to one day become a head coach. You need to know where you’re going.”
Noel further solidified his resume when he took the Head Coach position with the Manitoba Moose in 2010. Once again, the development of relationships within the game helped Noel reach the next level. After an impressive 43 win season, the Moose moved on to St. John’s to make way for the return of the NHL to Winnipeg, and Noel was hired as the Head Coach of the Jets. He had reached his ultimate goal.
“I am so grateful to be in this position,” says Noel. “We are working with the best players in the world. There are only 30 NHL Head Coaching jobs in the world, and I am very blessed to have the opportunity to take one of these jobs. But it’s not only the job that I like so much, it’s the people we have here. They’re patient, they’re smart, and they manage things intelligently and do things for the right reasons. This attitude permeates our entire organization. I couldn’t be happier, or in a better place. I’ve waited a long time for this, and it has turned out to be worth the wait. This is a gem of a place to coach.”