GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Over the course of three seasons with HC Ambri-Piotta of the National League in Switzerland, Maxim Noreau felt he had transformed himself as a defenceman. Playing on the international sized ice forced him to get better as a skater and be smarter with the puck. His endurance and explosiveness improved and he became far more responsible in his own end.
So when the Colorado Avalanche signed him in July 2014 and sent him to the American Hockey League, the Montreal native figured one way or another he would, eventually, get another crack at the National Hockey League. He was a different player than the one who got one game with the Minnesota Wild in 2009-10 and five more in 2010-11 before he crossed the Atlantic.
All he needed was a chance.
“I was doing really well in the AHL, I thought I was doing everything I was supposed to do, even hitting and fighting, trying to get one game to show, ‘Hey, I’m not the same player I was before,’” said Noreau, who played two seasons with Avalanche affiliates before returning to Switzerland, this time with the powerhouse Bern SC. “That was really tough mentally, when you’ve worked that hard to change your game and be a lot better, you’re producing overseas, everyone thinks you can come back and play, and you don’t even get one game. Ever since then, I haven’t really looked back.”
Unknowingly then, that return to Europe set him up to become one of Canada’s most important defencemen at the Pyeongchang Olympics. The 30-year-old’s third-period goal on a slapshot from the point was the difference in a 1-0 quarter-final win over Finland that propelled Canada into a semifinal contest with Germany on Friday, but he’s been a force in other ways, too.
With quick feet and a low panic point, the six-foot, 194-pound blue-liner has been strong in transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone and joining the rush as part of the five-man attack head coach Willie Desjardins has employed at the Games.
While Noreau is tied with Finland’s Sami Lepisto for the Olympic lead in points by a defenceman with five (two goals, three assists), he’s also a plus-five through the four games.
“Max skates so well, moves the puck so well, defends well and he’s got that shot that is lethal,” said captain Chris Kelly. “He’s done an extremely good job of making that first pass, he makes it easy as a forward, especially a centre-man, knowing you’re going to get that puck on your tape and get out of the zone quickly.”
Canada general manager Sean Burke built his defence to be mobile for precisely that reason, and the ability to play two ways is especially important now with starting goaltender Ben Scrivens uncertain for the Germany game.
Scrivens is dealing with what Burke called a shoulder-collarbone issue suffered when Eric O’Dell inadvertently knocked Veli-Matti Savinainen into the goaltender while trying to clear the big Finn from in front of the net.
Kevin Poulin took over early in the second period and made several strong saves, and appears primed to start Friday with Scrivens missing Thursday’s practice to get treatment. As for Scrivens’ status, Burke said, “I would assume that hopefully he’s better (Friday) and ready to at least get back practising,” and regardless of whether he does or doesn’t, Canada’s defence is going to need to be at its sharpest.
“The one area I’ve liked is that for a team that has what we’d like to think is more an offensive defence, a skating defence, those guys have been very responsible in our own end,” said Burke. “You can’t win playing run and gun, none of these games have been that way. There’s been the odd blowout, but when you’re in tight games, your defence and goaltending have to be the backbone of your team.
“So far that’s been really good for us.”
Noreau, someone Burke described as one of the players in the tournament “so close to a guy who could have been in the NHL,” will be front and centre on that front.
An undrafted product of the Victoriaville Tigres in the QMJHL, Noreau put up big points for a defenceman after latching on with the Houston Aeros of the AHL in 2007-08.
Yet despite a 52-point season over 76 games in 2009-10, he was still a minus-7, and while that’s not a wholly fair measure of someone’s play, it was indicative of his run-and-gun mindset. That’s changed in recent years, as in his final AHL season with San Antonio before signing with Bern, for instance, he was a plus-8 while last year in Switzerland he was a plus-19 in 35 games.
This season, he’s a plus-7 through 30 contests.
“I’m a lot more mature now,” said Noreau. “You say that about defencemen a lot, but my risk-reward probably wasn’t the best when I was younger and I think now, playing in Bern on a big stage where we’re really trying to win every single year, there’s a lot of pressure and it’s been good for me to have to show up every single game and be a top guy defensively and shut down the other team’s top lines.”
Noreau played in each of Canada’s evaluation tournaments leading up to the Olympics, captaining the Spengler Cup squad, and impressed at each event. None of that would have been possible, he says, without his wife Karine, who followed him around and supported at all the stops along the way.
They have an 18-month-old son, Mason, whom he credits for providing more perspective on life, and all that helps explain why the Olympics are so personal, and so meaningful to him.
“It hasn’t been easy in my career, I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, my family travelling around, telling me they’ll go wherever – I’m lucky to have such a good support system,” said Noreau. “I have a lot to prove, to myself also, but to a lot of people that doubted me. I didn’t really get a fair chance, I thought, and it’s been tough. The last two years have been great, in Bern, winning, and changing my mind and turning the page. Being here, on a bigger stage, than just our little bubble in Switzerland has been huge for me to show people, hey, I’m a pretty good player.
“I speak for a lot of guys who feel the exact same way as I do. We’re really hungry. Any time you put the Maple Leaf on there’s a huge pride factor involved, but individually, too, every single guy is that hungry to prove something and to win.”
An Olympic semifinal coming up, a win away from playing for Olympic gold, Noreau and his teammates all have that chance.