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Hitchcock out in Columbus; Noel takes over

by Dan Rosen
Columbus' season-long struggles have cost coach Ken Hitchcock his job.

Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson announced Wednesday that Hitchcock has been relieved of his duties and will be replaced on an interim basis by Claude Noel, who was one of Hitchcock's assistants.

Columbus is last in the Central Division and 13th in the Western Conference with 53 points (22-27-9). Hitchcock finished his tenure as the Jackets' coach with a 125-123-36 record.

"It wasn't working," Howson said when asked at a news conference Wednesday evening about why the change was made. "The team wasn't responding to the message."

Noel will coach his first game Thursday, when the Blue Jackets host Dallas in the opener of a five-game homestand

"You're going to see some changes," Noel said at the news conference. "But I'm not going to reinvent the game."

Hitchcock led the Blue Jackets to the first playoff berth in franchise history last spring, though they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. The Jackets were expected to continue to improve, but after a 12-6-2 start, the team won just three of its next 24 games. The defense, usually a trademark of Hitchcock-coaches teams, has struggled -- and 2008-09 Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason hasn't matched last season's performance in goal.

"We don't consider the season lost," Howson said. "We'll play hard the rest of the season and see what happens."

Asked why he decided to fire Hitchcock now, Howson said, "We thought Hitch deserved a chance to work out these last 37 games. We kept hoping he'd find a decision."

Noel, 54, joined the Jackets' coaching staff as an assistant following the 2006-07 season. He previously was the coach of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals, leading the club to 183 wins, three 100-point seasons, two West Division titles and the 2004 Calder Cup championship.

"This is an emotional day for me," Noel said. "Ken Hitchcock is a friend of mine. He's a tremendous coach. I've been blessed to be able to learn from him. This is a sad day."
Noel, the 2004 AHL Coach of the Year, was 33-21 in the Calder Cup Playoffs and also led the Admirals to the Calder Cup Finals in 2006.

Noel also has been a head coach in the ECHL and the International Hockey League. He was the 2003 ECHL Coach of the Year with the Toledo Storm prior to becoming the bench boss in Milwaukee.

Hitchcock was hired by the Blue Jackets 20 games into the 2006-07 season. The team got better in each of the next two seasons, culminating with the first playoff berth in franchise history last season.

Hitchcock also played a vital role in turning star forward Rick Nash into one of the League's best two-way threats by trusting him with ice time on the penalty kill and late in close games.
Nash was sorry to see the change.

"It's terrible news," Nash, the Jackets' captain, told the Columbus Dispatch. "It's terrible news. It's terrible we couldn't play better and the coach had to be fired. Hitch put this market on the map. We didn't really have an identity before he got here."

"It's terrible news.  It's terrible news. It's terrible we couldn't play better and the coach had to be fired. Hitch put this market on the map. We didn't really have an identity before he got here." -- Rick Nash
The Jackets entered Wednesday's games 27th in goals-against per game at 3.19. Mason has been mired in a season-long slump and is just 13-18-6 with a 3.28 goals-against average and .890 save percentage. His GAA is better than only Atlanta'sOndrej Pavelec (3.43) and Anaheim's Vesa Toskala (3.66). His save percentage also is among the worst in the NHL.

In 14 seasons with Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus, Hitchcock has a career record of 533-350-70 with 88 ties. In a three-season span with the Stars, he guided them to the 1998 Western Conference Finals, won the Stanley Cup in 1999, and took them back to the Stanley Cup Final in 2000.

He was fired 50 games into the 2001-02 season, and landed in Philadelphia the following season. His best season there was 2003-04, when the Flyers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. He was fired eight games into the 2006-07 season, but landed in Columbus a month later.

"Ken Hitchcock joined the Blue Jackets at a time when our team needed credibility, stability and structure, which is exactly what he provided and for that we are extremely grateful," Blue Jackets President Mike Priest said in a statement. "He embraced our community and provided leadership and confidence to our organization and our fans and we are thankful for all he has done."

Hitchcock's dismissal does not change his status as an assistant coach for Team Canada for 2010 Winter Olympics.

"Not from my point of view," Team Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman told

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