The Axe

Last Sunday the axe fell on Claude Noel, lopping his weary coaching head from his would-rather-be-golfing body. It was the execution that capped weeks of frustration from both the team and the fan base with the suggested remedies ranging from “trade all our best players” to “force members of ownership and management into a Battle Royale to the death where the victor will win not only his precious freedom but the confidence of season ticket holders”. (The latter may have just been a dream I had.) The flurry of online reaction, both snark and relief with a soupcon of speculation about what Paul Maurice will bring to the table, gave me pause to consider what is one of the more humiliating experiences of our daily humdrum: getting fired.

I’ve been shown the door by employers on two different occasions. One was a downsizing move, a company clearing away all the underbrush of their operations so that they could contract out their support roles to a staffing agency. Though I should have seen it coming – there was no way I was going to be classified as essential personnel – it was still a bizarre scenario to be pulled into an office, handled virtually by script by HR, then escorted immediately to a waiting taxi. That’s true: the company was in a creative industry so it meant sending folks packing, even the non-creatives like myself, before they can try and steal all the best ideas on a thumb drive. With a little foresight, I could have been the guy who tanked the Need For Speed franchise. I’m joking. That happened without my help.

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Honestly, though, that experience didn’t leave me bitter. I received a decent severance package and took some time off to record an album. (Insert egregious self-promotion here.) I work my day jobs with the perfunctory diligence of homeowners mowing their lawns every Sunday so that I can put my energy into my own creative pursuits. It’s a risky bargain but one I’m happy to take.

No, the one that leaves the taste of Shark Sandwich in my mouth is the one where I tried to effect change in my workplace and discovered I was both immature and ineffectual as a leader. After a successful unionizing campaign in a large retail environment (Ha! Silly man, those aren’t jobs worth fighting for!) I was hoisted by my own “hilarious” petard after a dumb joke between union organizers, as written in a birthday card, was magically reassessed as slander by store management and so off I went. In the end the union wasn’t willing to fight it and I provided plenty enough ammunition to an adversary eager to pull the trigger on any gun in their arsenal. The remaining organizers still saw the contract through with tenacity but I’ll always feel like I left a whole bunch of good people in the lurch. My frustration and smart-assery overwhelmed any level of strategic thinking, patience or downright common sense during a precarious time in our work lives. That was some hard look in the mirror stuff. Oh, hello, Claude. My name is Ross, nice to meet you.

We’ve been pretty hard on Claude Noel here at Jets Nation but, let’s be fair, many of the decisions seemed arbitrary or questionable or even petty depending on whom you ask. We’re undeniably guilty of speculation and inference however we don’t have a “Deepthroat” inside source so we’re not privy to the conversations that went on behind closed office doors. There may well have been very good reasons for all the seemingly random choices involving unlikely line combinations, questionable benchings, special teams, general structure of play… okay, just about everything, but we’ll never know. The reality of having an NHL coaching job is that it comes with a crap-ton of pressure and scrutiny and there are only 30 openings, so good luck with that. Noel came in three years ago with a strong Junior coaching pedigree but the whiff of NHL experience as interim head coach with the Blue Jackets in 2010 (10-8-6 in his brief tenure) was perhaps the more prophetic sample of what would come in Winnipeg. He rarely seemed enthusiastic or engaged and more often like a frustrated boy given a puzzle to solve with pieces both missing and ill fitting. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t make a picture out of those pieces and was happy to say so publicly on more than one occasion. If you’ve been hired to make that pretty picture and cannot, well, then it’s only a matter of time, isn’t it?

It makes me wonder about the leadership structure in place at Jets HQ. In any team atmosphere, if one member of the team is struggling to see a new solution to a persistent problem, it’s not unusual that a fresh pair of eyes helps discover the cipher for the code. Sometimes, the solution is simple and right in front of them but their own thought patterns and biases prevent them from seeing a new perspective that was evident to the second person. So, where was this teamwork from the Jets staff? The Maurice hiring would seem to be indicative of a willingness to try new approaches but was anyone doing this before it got to that point? Was there such a strict party line on how the team should be run that no constructive voice of criticism could be heard? Not one coach? Not one ambitious intern had a bold new idea worth trying? Or was the problem in the opposite direction? No clear plan, no cohesive vision, too many cooks and why not throw Byfuglien up to forward when there’s zero depth on the blue line…?

More speculation, of course, but it’s all we got for ya, folks. I have no idea what it’s like to work on an NHL coaching or management staff. I have, though, worked for many corporations that have cultures that stifle growth and innovation and others that chase their own tail. While neither setting makes for a great workplace, many of these companies still operate profitably. I’ve seen absolute dullards and brown-nosers climb the ladder while geniuses get no credit and made redundant and the shareholders are none the wiser. No one said it made sense.

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Claude Noel is no misunderstood genius, he just drew the short straw on team needing a change. That’s not meant as a kick-him-while-he’s-down insult; I suspect he’s a very personable and clever guy. You don’t get to have one of 30 prestigious jobs in an elite professional sports league by being an ingnoranamous. Was he a victim of management interference or, conversely, incompetence? Did he have obsequious or contrary staff? Did he ever truly “have the room” or did his players lack confidence in themselves, more so with each mounting loss? Was he a victim of his own stubbornness or was it his own indecision?

What I can say, more from experience than speculation, is that the day he was cleaning out his office, his stomach was unsettled. He put pictures and mementos and his favourite coffee mug in a cardboard box, wondering how it went wrong and what he was going to do next. He tried putting a positive face on his disappointment. He looked forward to a beer with friends where he could vent. He repeated to himself that this is all part of the job and this is the life he chose. He tried to remember what really matters. He hoped he didn’t let anyone down too badly. He thought about leaving a dog dump in the office chair for the new guy but instead left him a letter of tempered best wishes and a lay of the organizational land to help smooth the transition. It was the professional thing to do. He took the bullet. He might feel like he deserved it. He knew he wouldn’t stop pushing those puzzle pieces around in his head until some semblance of a pretty picture was revealed and he hoped he might get another crack at it, eventually, in another town.

Lights out. Door locked. Leave your pass at the front desk. Good luck, Coach.

  • Kevin McCartney

    Love these personal essays, Ross. Thoughtful and engaging. I learn a lot from the humanity in your writing. In this case, the experience of disempowerment is so humanizing for Noel and at the same time, I appreciate the class consciousness of it. Even as a uniquely skilled worker, he’s helpless to the money people, and still subject to the culture of the organization. I think we’ve all been in that experience, whether fired or not.

    Work! What a trip.

  • Nice article Ross. I think most all who read this in one way or another can relate through past experiences. Personally, I’ve turned getting fired into an art form. But the shelf life of a professional coach can often be a short one and when Claude Noel was offered a mere one year extension to his contract last year, it looked to me to be a vote of non-confidence by the club brass.

    I assumed as the patients had already been running the asylum for some time now, another month or three weren’t going to make much of a difference in the tenure of this coach. But after seeing Cheveldayoff wearing out the rug in his private perch during the Tampa Bay game and with his eyes shooting out laser beams, in hindsight the firing should have come as no surprise.

    Mr. Noel has, is and always will be a great teaching coach. He’s a student of the game like any good coach should be. But to coach at this level with the most elite hockey players on the planet, you have to ride the current in the middle of the stream, somewhere between being Mr. Rogers on the left and Sargent Rock on the right. His failings were that he was a little to much Mr. Rogers and not enough Sargent Rock.

    Somewhere, and at sometime, Mr. Noel will resurface as either a head coach in the AHL, or as a trusted assistant back in the NHL. And then he will be back in his element, back where he should be. In the mean time, we have ourselves a coach in Paul Maurice whose also a student and teacher of the game and wastes no opportunity to coach, whether it be behind the bench during the heat of battle or at any other time when the circumstances present itself. And one who, at first glance, seems to be a little more Sargent Rock. And who better to lead a team into battle.