By Dan Saevig
Toledo Blade Sports Writer
Claude Noel has made hockey his career.
The new coach of the Toledo Storm is also a “trained” firefighter.
Noel’s first head coaching position was with the East Coast Hockey League’s Roanoke Valley (Va.) Rebels in 1990. It’s there that he learned to put out blazes.
The Rebels were owned by Henry Brabham, the founding father of a league that has grown from six teams to 27.
“I owe a lot to Henry because he really helped me get started,” Noel says today. “But man, it was an ongoing challenge every day to function.”
Beginning with the opening game of the season.
CLAUDE NOEL FILE
The Rebels’ first opponent was the Erie Panthers. The visitors pulled into the aluminum-sided, warehouse-like facility that Roanoke called home in a luxurious sleeper bus. Complete with curtains, air conditioning in each bunk, TVs, VCRs, and coffee maker, it may have been worth more than the Rebels’ rink.
After pregame warmups, Erie’s players climbed back on their bus.They had no choice. The building was being evacuated because of a bomb threat.
“My wife drove up at 7:20 and there’s 2,000 people outside,” Noel says. “She thought, ‘Wow, we’ve got a crowd here tonight.'”
What she didn’t see was her husband’s team standing out in the parking lot in its equipment.
When they got the all-clear, Noel gathered his team in the dressing room for a pre-game pep talk. Suddenly, an explosion rang out. Players dived for the floor.
“I open the door, and there’s Henry, just howling,” Noel says. “He had taken a Civil War musket from the color guard and fired it off.”
At Roanoke’s second home game, someone drove a car into a generator and the lights went out two or three times during the contest.
At the third outing, a staff member passed away in the stands.
“After three home games, I thought to myself, ‘If you survive this year, either you’re going to be dead, or you’ll be better for it,'” Noel says. “That was my introduction to the ECHL.”
He will have plenty of opportunities to reintroduce himself to the league. Noel’s team opens its 2002-03 season Friday at 7:30 p.m. against Peoria at the Sports Arena.
The captain of the Toledo Goaldiggers’ 1982-83 International Hockey League Turner Cup championship team was hired this summer to replace Dennis Holland, whose two-year contract wasn’t renewed after the Storm failed to qualify for the Kelly Cup playoffs last season.
Noel, 46, takes over an organization looking to return to its glory years of 1992-94, when it won two ECHL championships and played before packed houses of more than 5,000. Last season, many in the announced average crowds of 4,243 spent their time booing Holland and his team.
“There’s pressure on us to succeed, there’s no question about that,” Noel says. “We not only have to make the playoffs, but we have to find success in the playoffs. I think pressure is good. You come every night expecting to win because the fans expect it. I’m glad that expectations are high.
“If you want to go hide somewhere where people don’t know too much about hockey, then this probably isn’t the place you want to be.”
With that in mind, Noel and new assistant coach Mark Bernard focused on signing players this summer who didn’t mind playing in an antiquated arena or in a city where you can’t play much golf between October and April.
Just six players – Alexandre Jacques, Mark McMahon, Jeff Mitchell, Grady Moore, Tim Verbeek and Chad Wilchynski – return from last season. Because of the new coach, Toledo now has a National Hockey League affiliation agreement with the Nashville Predators. Noel was an assistant coach the past four seasons with Nashville’s American and International hockey league farm clubs in Milwaukee.
The Predators will assist the Detroit Red Wings in building the Storm.
“Are all the pieces in place?” Noel asks. “Time will tell. The coaches and management understand the pressures at hand.”
Since landing his firefighting job in Roanoke, Noel has also been a head coach in Dayton for the ECHL’s Bombers (1991-93) and the top man in Kalamazoo (1996-98) for Dallas’ top farm club.
“I’m a better head coach now than the last time, in Kalamazoo. I’m much more confident in myself and my abilities.
“I want the players to focus on two things. Every day you come to the rink, focus on being better at the end of the day than at the beginning; as individuals and as a team. If we can do that, then we’ll get to where we want to go.”