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Published: Wednesday, 2/10/2010

Ex-Goaldigger getting attention in Columbus

ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBUS - Since becoming the interim head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets a week ago, Claude Noel has received more than 1,000 calls, texts, and e-mails of congratulations.

Some are from folks back home in Kirkland Lake, Ont., or from players and coaches from his long career in the AHL, ECHL, and practically every other HL.

"You know what's wild? People send me texts with the number but no name - and I don't know who it is!" Noel said, laughing at himself. "There might be 20 percent that are just numbers."

Noel is a former Toledo Goaldigger (1982-83, 1984-86) and had a 47-15-10 record as a coach with the Toledo Storm (2002-03).

As an assistant under Ken Hitchcock, who was fired after the Blue Jackets got off to a miserable 22-27-9 start this season, the players really liked Noel. He joked with them, acted up, played around, and also worked hard with them.

He has his own way of saying things. He refers to players as "stallions." He is constantly talking about letting go and "freeing the mind." Offensive players aren't forwards, wings, or centers, they're "shooters."

But the most important word is among the shortest.

"That's his big word - joy. He's been saying it all year long," goalie Steve Mason said.

Now he's saying it as the head man, at least for the remaining 22 games this season. He's off to a 2-0 start heading into tonight's game against San Jose, the top team in the Western Conference.

"He's kind of serious with us," captain Rick Nash said. "When he was an assistant coach he was a bit more fun. Now he's more serious, and he has to be. In here, he's all business."

Noel, 54, said he hasn't changed personalities. Perhaps his new position means he's not the players' best buddy anymore, but that doesn't mean he's not the same person.

"I can still be that way, but not to the level they saw me as an assistant," he said, sipping a bottle of water in his office after yesterday's workout. "They'll see that again. They might not see that level again in this hockey arena. Maybe at the end of the season."

His boss didn't hire him because he was popular with the players. Noel, a veteran coach in the minors, also knows what he's doing behind the bench.

At the end of the season, general manager Scott Howson will evaluate Noel's performance and will consider whether to knock the "interim" off his job title. If the Blue Jackets keep playing the way they have the last two games, winning by a combined 6-1 over Dallas and Buffalo, Noel will make Howson's decision a difficult one.

As a player, he toiled for remote outposts before finally getting a taste of the NHL, playing seven games with the Washington Capitals in 1980. He never made it back, spending most of the next 10 years plying his trade before starting as a coach on the bottom rungs of the pro ladder.

Noel, who came to Columbus as an assistant in 2007, laughed when asked if he thought he could maintain his unbeaten record.

"The fact that we've only played two games, I would remember that," he said. "But if you ask me in game 12, I probably won't know what our record is. I don't deal in records."



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