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Cup Year Gave Noonan Lifelong Link to Rangers

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Noonan returned to the Rangers in 1996 and wore No. 28, becoming the first Ranger to wear that number after his longtime Chicago and New York teammate Steve Larmer.
Two months ago, when the Flames hired Mike Keenan as their new head coach, at least one former NHL player must have wondered if he was going to be invited for a tryout in Calgary.

That's because few players were more closely associated with Keenan during his coaching heyday than 42-year-old Brian Noonan, who played for Keenan on four of the eight NHL teams that "Iron Mike" has coached.

Noonan and Keenan would share their greatest hockey moment as members of the 1994 Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers, but their association went all the way back to 1988, when Keenan took over a Chicago Blackhawks team that included Noonan. After four seasons in Chicago, they would later work together at The Garden in 1994, in St. Louis from 1995 to 1996, and in Vancouver during the most of the 1997-98 season.

Few players know Keenan like Noonan, but that relationship didn't start off so well. A ninth-round Blackhawks draft pick, Noonan had made the Chicago roster against the odds at the start of the 1987-88 season, and the young center made an immediate mark by scoring in his first NHL game. He would finish that rookie season with 10 goals and 30 points, and appeared to be a key part of Chicago's future -- at least until Keenan arrived.

Keenan soon demoted Noonan to the minors, and he would spend the next three seasons splitting time between the Blackhawks and their IHL affiliates in Saginaw and Indianapolis. Those demotions hit Noonan hard, and by the start of the 1990-91 season, he was so frustrated that he demanded a trade that led to a three-week suspension from the team. But that experience seemed to shake Noonan up just enough to drive him to an outstanding IHL season in 1990-91 which would earn him permanent NHL status over the next eight years.

"When I first started, he (Keenan) wasn't a fan of mine," said Noonan. "… I wasn't crazy about him either, but I think it just took me a while to realize that I was the type of player that needed somebody on me all of the time. I have a laid-back personality and he knew how to press my buttons. Once I realized that and matured into it, I enjoyed playing for him. He's hard on you, but he wants to win every game. He expects a lot from you, but you can't really blame a coach for that."

After such a rocky start, it was hard to project Noonan as a Keenan favorite, but the hard-driving coach also did Noonan a great service in 1991-92, moving him from his natural position of center to right wing, where he would spend the rest of his NHL career.

Indeed, Noonan credits Keenan for much of his later success, and said those early years with taught him lessons that could benefit the Calgary players about to start their first training camp under the veteran coach.

"You can't let him get to you," Noonan said of Keenan. "There will be some guys that he challenges, and there will be some stuff he does that makes you shake your head and wonder what's going on. But you can only control what you do on the ice, so you should just listen to what he says and what the assistant coaches say, and just do what they ask you. For the rest of it, you've just got to try to keep him out of your head."

Building on the success of 78 goals over two IHL seasons in Indianapolis, Noonan went on to score a career-high 19 goals for the Blackhawks in 1991-92 and helped the Blackhawks reach the 1992 Stanley Cup Finals. Over the next four seasons -- spent in Chicago, New York and St. Louis -- Noonan was remarkably consistent -- netting 16 goals in 1992-93, 18 in 1993-94, 14 in the lockout-shortened 1995 season, and 13 in 1995-96.

Noonan continued scoring despite having to change teams three times during this four-year stretch. His NHL world was rocked for the first time on March 21, 1994, when the Blackhawks sent Noonan and Stephane Matteau to the Rangers in exchange for Tony Amonte and college prospect Matt Oates. At the time, the Rangers front office was putting the final touches on a Blueshirts team destined to win the Cup, and obviously felt Noonan was part of that puzzle.

"(Chicago) had played (the Rangers) a couple of times that season," Noonan recalled. "The Rangers were in first place, and we knew what kind of team they had. We knew we were going to a very good hockey team, that's for sure."

Coming to New York was a relatively easy transition for Noonan, a Boston native who was no stranger to the Big Apple. He was also pleased to find many familiar faces in the Rangers' locker room.

"When you've spent six and a half years on one team, you get comfortable and have a home there," Noonan said of his time in Chicago. "I didn't have a family at the time, so it wasn't too tough that way to get traded. But whenever you get traded you don't know what's going to happen with the other team. You don't know if people are going to accept you. It's tough. It's a tough adjustment, but knowing some of the guys that were already here -- Greg Gilbert, Steve Larmer, Mike Hudson and Keenan -- made the adjustment a lot easier. I went to a team that was winning a lot of hockey games and there was a good attitude around it, so there was a pretty easy transition."

As a Ranger, Noonan picked up four goals and two assists in the final 12 games of the 1993-94 season. He went on to contribute another four goals, as well as seven assists, in the team's playoff run. When he lifted the Cup for the only time in his career on June 14, 1994, Noonan ranked as the championship team's seventh leading scorer -- filling precisely the role that his former coach had projected for him.

Noonan emerges from a New York City taxi on his way to the Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup celebration at the White House.
Noonan ensured his place in Rangers history by picking up the second assist on the eventual Stanley Cup-winning goal, a power-play tally by Mark Messier at 13:29 of the second period of Game 7. At even strength, his linemates during the Finals were Sergei Nemchinov and Esa Tikkanen.

"That whole playoff run was so memorable," Noonan said. "Coming downtown on the day of games. Having dinner the night before in White Plains with the whole team. It was just an awesome ride to be on. Obviously, those first two series went well for us against the Islanders and Washington because we won four straight and 4-1, but the New Jersey and Vancouver series were even tighter and more nerve-racking, but the fans were awesome."

Returning to the Rangers for the 1995 season after the lockout, Noonan erupted for 14 goals and 27 points in 45 games. By that time, Keenan had already left New York to coach the St. Louis Blues, but he took notice of Noonan's performance, and when Noonan reached free agency, the Blues were right there to offer him a contract in July 1995.

Although Noonan returned to St. Louis to play for Keenan on a third team, he was not yet done with the Rangers. The fan favorite returned to The Garden on Nov. 13, 1996, in a deal for Sergio Momesso, and scored six more goals over 44 games before being traded to Vancouver with Nemchinov for his former Stanley Cup teammate Tikkanen and Russ Courtnall. Ironically, Noonan would be coached by Keenan for a fourth time when Keenan took over the Canucks for the 1997-98 season.

After becoming an unrestricted free agent following the 1997-98 season, Noonan returned to his hockey roots in Indianapolis, where he again played in the minors until the Phoenix Coyotes signed him for the balance of the 1998-99 season on March 17, 1999. Seven games in Phoenix would wrap up his 629-game NHL career that saw him score 116 goals and 275 points.

At age 34, Noonan wasn't ready to retire, so he went back to his first NHL city and signed with the Chicago Wolves, an independent team that went on to win the defunct International Hockey League's Turner Cup in 2000. One more year with the Wolves brought a return to the Turner Cup Finals and an opportunity to leave hockey on his own terms.

"If it wasn't Chicago, I probably wouldn't have played," said Noonan. "I was still living there, and at that time it was still the IHL and the Wolves were an independent team. They just went out and signed a bunch of older guys like myself. The owner there, who's still there, is just a great hockey guy and a great owner. And they have great fans."

In 2001, Noonan announced his retirement but remained at his home in Elmhurst, Ill., where he began coaching youth hockey teams. He moved up to the high school ranks three years ago with Naperville North and also works in the Little Hawks youth organization today. When he's not coaching, Noonan can be spotted in charity games with the Blackhawk Alumni, a group that enables him to keep in touch with old teammates.

"I spend a lot of time in hockey rinks," he said.

Now six years removed from playing, Noonan has no regrets about his career path that took him from the high school rinks in Boston to major junior hockey in Western Canada before he landed in the pros.

"It's always tough to realize you can't play anymore. We all wish we could play forever, but I stepped away because I knew I couldn't play and that transition was easy. I did the radio for the Wolves for one year, and I was still kind of around the game and around the guys, so that kind of made the transition easier. But once you realize you're not good enough to play anymore, it's tough."

It's surely tough for any player to say goodbye to the NHL game, but having a Stanley Cup ring makes it a lot easier. Those final years in Chicago gave him a satisfying closure to his 16-year professional career but there is no doubt that nothing could top what happened to him in New York, when he shared in a moment that – in the words of one announcer – will last a lifetime.
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