Newfoundland native Nathan Noel left the province 10 years ago a 14-year-old in pursuit of one day playing in the NHL.
A decade later and with no shortage of pit stops along the way, Noel’s journey through hockey has brought the former St. John’s Caps standout back to square one — suiting up with the Newfoundland Growlers for the 2021-22 season.
Although the opportunity to play in front of friends and family isn’t being taken for granted by the 24-year-old, it’s the organizational standards the Growlers have set on and off the ice that sold him on the deal this past offseason.
“The biggest thing about being here first and foremost is how they treat their players,” said Noel of his early impressions of the team. “Just a first-class organization and we’re all so privileged to be here.
“For the guys who haven’t been other places and played in other minor league environments, I hope they understand how good they have it here because it’s a special place to be for sure.”
After two impressive years with Shattuck St. Mary’s — a Minnesota-based prep school previously attended by the likes of Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon — Noel was drafted third overall in the 2013 QMJHL Draft by the Saint John Sea Dogs.
Following a strong four-year career with the Sea Dogs, including a league championship in his final season, the Chicago Blackhawks prospect turned pro and split the 2017-18 season in the next ranks between the Hawks ECHL and AHL affiliates.
Since leaving junior hockey, Newfoundland marks Noel’s fifth different team in as many seasons despite not suiting up anywhere last year due to complications caused by the pandemic. Even with the challenges along the way, Chicago’s 2016 4th round pick insn't spending any time feeling sorry for himself.
“That’s kind of the nature of the business anyways, all the guys on ECHL contracts or whatever contract you’re on, you always live with the reality that any day you could move, any day you could get cut.
“As a player, you don’t worry about where you’re playing too much, you just need to show up and work as hard as you can and try and be the best teammate that you can.”
Having become versed in the hard knocks of the minor pro ranks in recent years, Noel speaks for the team in saying the whirlwind surrounding venue changes in the week leading up to their highly anticipated home opener hasn’t caused too much of a stir in the locker room.
With a 5-0 start to the season and a core leadership group filled with fellow Newfoundlanders and 2019 Kelly Cup Champions to lean on, the focus remains the same as it has since preseason opened — win another cup on home soil.
“They’re a very special group for sure and you don’t win by accident,” said Noel of the Growlers captains. “There’s a reason why they did win in this league, they are great guys, good leaders and good players… the key returning guys have made it seem like a tight knit group right away and all the new guys who have come in have done a great job of fitting into that mix.”
“When you have that mix, you’ve got a pretty good formula for success.”
Noel and the rest of the Growlers have proven that formula’s value in early days of the season, beginning first by sweeping their opening four-game road trip before kickstarting this weekend’s three-game homestand with a 4-1 win at C.B.S. Arena — a venue the St. John’s native first stepped foot in for practice earlier this week.
Growing up playing countless minor hockey games minutes down the road at Robert French Memorial Stadium, the ‘old’ C.B.S. Arena, it’ll be a welcomed adjustment for the former Caps star to receive some love in Kelligrews for a change.
“Without a doubt that’s true,” said Noel with a laugh of being the enemy in the area many years ago. “It’s going to be weird at first but I’m looking forward to it.”
After missing out on the home opener, Noel is set to appear in his first professional game on home soil on Saturday night.