Opinion

Blog: Claude Noel, the Winnipeg Jets, and the end of one short Honeymoon

Dustin Byfuglien is the bets player the Winnipeg Jets have. That could be saying something. - Wikimedia Commons
Dustin Byfuglien is the bets player the Winnipeg Jets have. That could be saying something.
— image credit: Wikimedia Commons

I've been watching a lot of Friday Night Lights lately. Well, re-watching.

The plot is, of course, incredible, and no other show has ever rotated its lead actors and key characters like it. We know the players have to graduate and we know the show's creators will have to somehow sub in new protagonists, new quarterbacks, and new coaches, and we know they're trying to make us care. And it works. They pull it off.

But the show hits home with Eric Taylor and his tribulations as the coach of the West Dillon Panthers, then the coach of the East Dillon Lions, and mostly as the father of a whole town of high school kids who need a mentor, need a leader, and need their coach to be the best person they know. They also need someone to fall on the sword when they screw up, and just about everyone but the coach screws up every episode. They need a guy who says little but listens to everything, and they need someone to protect them, someone to project on. Eric Taylor is that guy, and he often pays for his players' mistakes. For his family's, too, counting Tim Riggins as family, of course.

For anyone who's ever been involved in sports or school and had politics – and money – take over their daily lives, destroy their employment or prospects, and sometimes build them back up again, Friday Night Lights is just damn fine television.

And so I thought of Eric Taylor today when I thought of Claude Noel, the very fine now-ex-coach of the Winnipeg Jets who was banned from Bethlehem on Sunday morning, with Winnipeg apparently deciding to place the blame on Noel's shoulders instead of addressing the very real issue that roster has.

They have issues on the ice. They have issues off the ice. And, too often, those worlds seem to blend together and borrow from each other. I don't care whether Evander Kane took photos with dollar bills or whether Dustin Byfuglien was driving his boat drunk, but it does matter when they lose as casually as they Tweet.

Now, there's also the Honeymoon factor, and it's more than likely Noel was fired as a reset. In Halo, they call that a re-spawn.

Very few would pin awful seasons on Noel himself, but something had to happen. Something had to change, and they couldn't very well cut every under-performing player all at once, right?

Byfuglien is Winnipeg's best player. That's probably saying something.

But many teams have done more with less. The Jets do add Andrew Ladd, Kane, Zack Bogosian, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Jacob Trouba to the mix.

They're not empty and they're competitive. And Noel was, for two years at least, one of the better ingredients in a slowly improving soup.

But as these past three seasons have unfolded and the Jets have routinely, constantly taken one step forward and one step back, Noel became a symbol of a rebuild and not a leader for change. The entire team became a mascot for a city and it was heartwarming, they were irrelevant as far as the NHL standings were concerned. And Noel was the captain of a train he couldn't control.

Like Eric Taylor, he was forced to become the barking bench boss – yelling at the East Dillon Lions and expecting them to be his beloved Panthers. Only they didn't care and didn't want to care. They didn't want to be there anymore than he did, maybe, and there's no better real-world Dillon, Texas in the NHL than the fictional Winnipeg, Manitoba. It will reward your loyalty and it will give you back everything you give it. It's a wonderful town with wonderful people. But it's not New York, it's not Chicago, and it's not Toronto. It's the sort of place people talk of leaving, not flocking to. That's not fair and not deserved, but it's just the way it is and that's just how people are.

Noel's players – like Taylor's – didn't hear his message and perhaps didn't listen to it. That's not his fault. It's theirs, but there's also nothing more he could do. He tried to squeeze out every ounce of skill, every bit of victory that Winnipeg roster had, and in return all he got was a one-way flight to the much superior Western Conference.

There are far too many things working against Winnipeg. And the only things working for it are a few players who either appear unmotivated to win every night or unprepared to stay. Hard to imagine Byfuglien hanging around when he can sign elsewhere, and then the dominos will fall. Little? Wheeler? We know Kane's got that fat contract, but he can be traded and Winnipeg will have to get used to turning its stars into assets. Hard to believe Ladd only has a couple years left on his $4.5 million-a-season deal, but don't think that fact's not hanging over anyone's head.

Claude Noel was hardly responsible for any of Winnipeg's problems. He'll go down with the ship and he was handcuffed to a pole in the poor man's quarters like Leo in Titanic.

But somebody needed to go, and it's rarely fair.

 

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