By Dan Saevig
Blade Sports Writer
TOLEDO, Ohio – The irony wasn’t lost on Claude Noel.
When the plane carrying the coach and his Calder Cup champion Milwaukee Admirals arrived at their hometown airport with the American Hockey League’s version of the Stanley Cup, a throng of cheering well-wishers was waiting. One in particular caught Noel’s eye.
This fan was not wearing the Admirals’ traditional burgundy, dark blue, and copper-colored garb like so many others.
Instead, the man was decked out in a green, yellow and white Toledo Goaldiggers’ jersey, circa 1983.
“I had to chuckle,” Noel said. “I thought to myself, ‘It’s only fitting that he came with that jersey on. I had taken one title away wearing a sweater like that and now I bring one back.’?”
Twenty-one years after captaining the Goaldiggers over the Admirals in the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup finals, and one season after coaching the Toledo Storm to the best regular-season record in the ECHL, Noel has led the top developmental club of the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators to the pinnacle of minor league hockey.
With support from four members of the 2002-03 Storm – Brian Finley, Andrew Hutchinson, Alexandre Jacques, and Nathan Lutz – Noel’s Admirals eliminated Cincinnati, Chicago, and Rochester before closing out a four-game sweep of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Sunday to capture the championship of the 68-year-old league.
It’s the first professional hockey playoff title for Milwaukee, a city that has hosted the game since 1948.
“When I went to Toledo, I wanted to run that team like an American League team,” Noel said. “When I came to Milwaukee, I thought I could accomplish things with the same blueprint that I used in Toledo.”
The plan was similar, and so was the outcome.
After missing the playoffs the previous season under Dennis Holland, Storm vice president and general manager Mike Miller decided to hire an out-of-work Noel, who had previous ECHL head-coaching experience in Dayton and Roanoke. Fired as an IHL head coach by Kalamazoo in 1998, Noel spent the next four seasons as an assistant in Milwaukee before being let go when the Admirals failed to qualify for post-season play.
In his return to Toledo – where he was the IHL’s most valuable player in 1982-83 – the Storm registered a 38-point improvement, the fifth-largest single-season gain in ECHL annals. Although the 47-15-10 club fell to Cincinnati in the Northwest Division finals, Noel was named ECHL coach of the year.
Last summer, he was re-hired by Nashville to tutor its premier prospects.
The success continued. The Admirals finished with the best record in the league at 46-24-7-3, only this time there would be no playoff disappointment.
For his efforts, Noel was selected as coach of the year in the 28-team AHL.
“I could never see that happening,” Noel said of his back-to-back championships and consecutive coaching awards. “Never.”
What the 48-year-old could imagine was creating teams that mirrored his demeanor: calm, organized, disciplined, hard-working, and intelligent.
“The thing I wanted to do was to provide an environment where players can succeed,” Noel said. “You have to have a vision, then a plan, then you have to execute it.”
It’s a process he created in Toledo, refined in Milwaukee and one day hopes to take to the NHL as a head coach.
“After the experience in Kalamazoo and then coming here as an assistant, I had to apply my newly learned philosophies as a head coach and Toledo was the training ground to do it,” Noel said. “I had to find a place to start over. It turns out that Toledo defined me as a coach.”