VANCOUVER - Claude Noel has gone back to school.
Actually, make that "hockey university."
The former head coach of the Winnipeg Jets joined the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Giants in December and saw an opportunity to not only turn around a struggling team, but also retool his own skills behind the bench.
Although still on the Jets payroll until this summer after being fired halfway through last season, Noel chose to get back in the game at the junior level instead of just sitting at home collecting a paycheque waiting for another NHL job to materialize.
"I like to work and I like to be active," Noel said after a recent practice. "There comes a point — 'What are you waiting for? Are you going to wait out the whole time?' There's too much learning that takes place when you're actively involved.
"You're hands on, you're very engaged and that's what I missed. It was time to get back engaged again. I feel like I'm back in hockey university."
The 59-year-old from Kirkland Lake, Ont., also saw an opportunity with the Giants to get a better handle on what makes younger players tick, a critical aspect of coaching in today's game.
"The young player that comes to the National Hockey League now is a different player. He has different things attached to him," said Noel. "When I got reassigned, my thought was 'I need to learn a little bit more about (that player).'
"I'm learning those things now and I'm getting a better understanding of that."
One young player Noel dealt with in Winnipeg was star forward Evander Kane. A source told The Canadian Press that Kane violated team rules with the Jets last week by showing up to a meeting in a track suit. The garments were later thrown in the shower by a teammate and Kane did not play in his hometown of Vancouver. He subsequently elected to have season-ending shoulder surgery, although his agent said the decision was based entirely on health reasons.
Kane was then traded to the Buffalo Sabres in a blockbuster deal on Wednesday.
Noel said from afar it looked like the situation in Winnipeg escalated quickly.
"I don't think there was any malicious part on anybody, on either party, whichever party you want to look at," Noel said a day before the trade went down. "I think that started something and then it just compounded from there — just took on a life of its own."
Noel was never shy in front of the cameras during his time in Winnipeg — including a number of memorable clips that can be found on YouTube — but said he's equally comfortable working out of the spotlight in the WHL.
"You can try things and you can do things and you can just coach," he said. "You don't have to worry about criticism, or a lot of it. I've always been hard on myself. It's not like criticism motivates you."
Noel, who also had a brief stint coaching the Columbus Blue Jackets after 2 1/2 years there as an assistant, added that while he would like to return to the NHL it's not something that occupies much of his time.
"I'm not at a point in my career or my life where I have to get back to anywhere," he said. "But I'd like to be part of an NHL organization and be part of a bigger picture and strive to win the Stanley Cup. I would really like to do that."
For their part, the players with the Giants said they were excited when Noel was brought in to replace Troy Ward, adding that taking direction from a former NHL coach has been a plus.
"I think you respect him a little more because he's been at that top level," said forward Tyler Benson. "He knows what he's talking about and you just want to listen because you want to be able to make the NHL and he's a coach that's coached there."
Noel, who has a 90-87-24 record in parts of four NHL seasons, went 8-1-1 over his first 10 games with the Giants before a slide last month put Vancouver in a battle for the playoffs with a quarter of the schedule remaining.
"We've seen two different sides of our team," said Noel. "We found ways to win the first while after I got here, and there was a lot of excitement. Then we went through a different phase with our team.
"It seems like it's settled back down again."
As of now, Noel's commitment with the Giants doesn't go beyond this season, and while he said he's the one going back to school he's also getting a kick out of teaching again.
"When you coach you're a helper," he said. "You help people, and that's what at the end of the day brings me a lot of joy — helping teams, helping players, helping an organization reach their goals."