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Noel's challenge: Keep players cool for opener

by Mike G. Morreale
WINNIPEG -- Coach Claude Noel will offer no elaborate pregame mantra just before his Winnipeg Jets take the ice for Sunday's season-opener against the Montreal Canadiens in what is sure to be an electric atmosphere inside the 15,004-seat MTS Centre.
After all, these NHL-starved Winnipeggers have waited 15 years for this moment. It was right after the 1995-96 season when the Jets 1.0 departed for Phoenix -- a hole that wasn't filled until this past summer when the Atlanta Thrashers moved in.

Jets coach has Byfuglien's back

WINNIPEG -- At a time when fans of the Winnipeg Jets were soaking in the news of having their team return to Manitoba following a 15-year hiatus, Dustin Byfuglien was earning headline news for all the wrong reasons.
First, there were those rumors floating around that Byfuglien was allegedly 35 pounds heavier than last season, when he checked in at 245 pounds. For the record, the Jets' website currently has him listed at 265 pounds. Then there's this issue regarding his charge of boating while intoxicated three weeks after his arrest in Minnesota last month.
When asked if Byfuglien was somewhat of a distraction during the offseason, Jets coach Claude Noel was frank.
"I met 'Buff' before … met him early in the process and also met him at the Draft," Noel told "I didn't need to discuss his situation with the team … we've handled it and I'm happy with him regardless.
"I understand the media world and I understand how everything works, but people need to recognize that the only thing that concerns me is Dustin Byfuglien and he's a good person."
Byfuglien, 26, led all NHL defensemen last season with 20 goals. It's interesting to note, however, that the former Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks produced only 13 points in the second half.
Still, Noel isn't too concerned with Byfuglien's off-ice issues and expects him to be one of the team leaders within the locker room.
"We all make mistakes in life," Noel said. "I don't need to know anything more. I know two things -- he's a good person and a very smart hockey player. And that makes me happy."
--Mike G. Morreale
During that 15-year period, hockey fans in Manitoba took in plenty of American Hockey League games featuring the Manitoba Moose. Others opted to travel south and cheer for the Minnesota Wild, and some decided to go east to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Now there's no need to make those trips since NHL hockey has returned. Word on the street is it's going to be pretty darn loud by the time the puck is dropped to signal the start of Jets 2.0.
"Opening night is a big-ticket item, so I think the sound is going to go through the roof," Noel told
While this certainly won't be Noel's first time speaking to a group sure to experience an adrenaline rush like nothing they've felt in some time, he has a good idea what he'll stress to his players prior to the biggest night in these parts in over a decade.
"The biggest challenge is going to be keeping the emotional level of the players at an even keel," Noel said. "That's my biggest challenge. It'll have to be that way through the initial 20 minutes. I recognize those things, so I'm not going to try to say anything magical that's going to get them psyched up. They're already going to be psyched up … I would be better to say things that will keep them calm."
Noel has more than 20 years of head coaching experience, including 24 games as interim coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets two seasons ago and an AHL Calder Cup championship with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2003-04.
"It's not going to be rocket science," Noel said of his pregame talk. "I had thought about it in the summertime. But the closer it got, the less I thought about it the more I watched our team. I'm not sure what I'll say because, really, it's not about what I say."
Basically, that's Noel's way of admitting his players will have the ultimate say, win or lose.

The atmosphere certainly won't get the best of Noel, who is familiar with MTS Centre since he coached the Moose.
"You can't help but get caught up in the excitement though," Noel admitted. "We're going to get a honeymoon period here of probably one year and we're prepared for that, but we're also hoping to continue the honeymoon for more than one year, which is exactly what you do in a marriage.
"Hey, I'm caught up in it just as much as everyone else. I got caught up in it when I knew I was getting the coaching job and then when I finally did get it (on June 24) because I could then feel that emotional connection with the fans."
The 55-year-old Noel earned his first full-time coaching gig over a host of candidates, including former Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish and Chicago Blackhawks assistant Mike Haviland.
The goal in his first season behind the bench is to qualify for the playoffs. It's something that won't come easy when you consider the franchise earned one playoff berth and zero postseason wins in 12 seasons as the Thrashers.
"There's no question we want to make the playoffs -- that's been clear from the beginning and that's been asked of the players," Noel said. "If we make the playoffs, it'll be dependent on how we play and how I coach … how the players take to the coaching and embrace everything. We're in it together; managing, coaching, playing and practicing is all intertwined. Our goal is one and we all know what it is -- it's making the playoffs."
That's certainly music to the ears of those ravenous season-ticket holders. If you'll recall, from 1979 through 1996, the original Jets -- housed in the old Winnipeg Arena -- won just two playoff rounds.
Noel seems like the type of guy who relishes a good challenge; that's a good thing since Atlanta finished 12th in the Eastern Conference last season and missed the playoffs by 13 points -- due in large part to a second-half finish that saw the team go 14-21-6. He won't change his identity and how he goes about his business just because he's entering the next coaching stage of his career.
"My identity won't change from years past because I coach the way that I am," he said. "People that know and have played with me would say that I'm not that aggressive … certainly not physically aggressive. But I'm aggressive in other ways, like to be responsible. I want to be aggressive and showcase our speed -- two elements I feel are important.
"Watching this team throughout training camp, I think we've made some strides in those areas too, so I'm really ecstatic with the growth in a short period of time."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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