Like many players who wrap up their NCAA careers, aspirations of playing pro hockey is a natural path for some, but so few very few gain that opportunity.
For Nanaimo Clippers alumnus Kevin Noble, he got that chance shortly after graduating from Mercyhurst University in 2012.
It all started with a professional tryout for the Missouri Mavericks of the Central Hockey League where he suited up in nine playoff games.
“Kansas City was amazing. We had great fans in an awesome playoff run but I decided I want to leave. Now the league is defunct, (and) although it was a good league, I wanted to get to the East Coast League.”
The Mavs fell in a hard-fought seven-game affair to the Fort Wayne Komets, who ended up taking the league title in five contests over the Wichita Thunder.
The following season, Noble ended up in the ECHL with the Stockton Thunder, but the season got off to an awkward start due to the NHL lockout.
Bitten by the injury bug
“I originally went to Greenville (and) ended up sticking, but got traded to Stockton. I get there and again, we have a lot of prospects who are down (there) playing that should be in the American (Hockey) League. I got there, played a bunch, and unfortunately, I had two years riddled with injuries.”
“I had two surgeries, one on my arm and wrist, and then started the next year in Stockton only to end up in St. Charles (of the Central Hockey League). Once I got there to play, I ruptured my pectoral muscle and had season-ending surgery.”
Frustrated and looking for a fresh start, Noble found himself back in the ECHL with the Tulsa Oilers for 2014-15.
He remained healthy and enjoyed his best pro season up to that point, recording 21 points and 125 penalty minutes in 68 games.
“I was fortunate enough to get called up to the American League once with the Oilers farm team, so that was nice to get that recognition. But at the same time, as that year winded down, I was ready to go back to Tulsa that summer, and (then) some opportunities came up in England.”
Noble’s experiences in both Stockton and Tulsa were great, despite the personal adversities.
“I had a great time in Stockton. It is a little bit rougher and maybe not the typical California-type retreat but the guys were always treated well. The facilities were amazing and you could golf all year because we lived on the golf courses. It was super close to Sacramento and San Francisco.”
“I went to a ton of San Francisco Giants games and went to a few (NBA) basketball games. I actually sat courtside when LeBron James and the Miami Heat were in town, so that was probably one of the coolest sporting events because of that era of the Heat. I went to a few country concerts, and we experienced a lot of cool things.”
“Playing in Tulsa was awesome. It is a different sort of landlocked area, but the community itself was great and I have nothing but good (and) fond memories. It was just what the doctor ordered that year.”
“I remember travel being pretty long there too. We had some tough road trips out to Florida and sleeper buses up to Ontario – it was a long year.”
A move across the Atlantic
Noble finished his pro career in England, spending four seasons with the Coventry Blaze of the Elite Ice Hockey League. Coventry is a city of 326,000 near Birmingham and London.
Much like Stockton and Tulsa, which aren’t considered hockey hotbeds, hockey isn’t the first sport on the radar in England, which is dominated by European football and the British Premier League.
“I was ready to turn it down, but I spoke with my parents and they told me to ask for my Master’s Degree. I told them I would only come if I could do that and they approved of it, but I had to sign a two-year contract.”
“It was a leap of faith, but the best thing I ever did to broaden my horizons as a person and travel outside of North America. It’s a unique culture that’s active, and opinionated, and can be tough to play in.”
Noble noted that the English hockey experience is similar to what you would see at a soccer match.
“The English league is very similar to the ECHL or American League, fifteen of the guys are imports so it’s (like) a North American league and the hockey is really good. Most of the guys who are over there have played in the minors.”
“For me, the way I played, I was always sort of the unlikeable character from the other team based on the way I played. So I had a lot of commentary from fans but that kept (me) sharp and was fuel.”
“It’s a very raw culture with a passionate, loyal fanbase. England has its small circle of hockey fans. I feel the English game has gotten a lot better in the last few years and is a more comfortable spot for more players.”
Noble says his “Welcome to England” moment was when he saw first hand the introduction of the teams are the polar opposite of what you would see in North America.
“You’re being walked out onto the ice in front of 500 people to be introduced at the meet and greet players night with a jersey full of ads. Then afterward, you go into the local bar at the rink and drink with all the fans and basically have beers all night.”
“In terms of game experience, it didn’t take long to have a fanbase that liked me and (those that) didn’t so I had a lot of arenas that had a lot of chants and comments.”
Noble had the opportunity to play with former Spokane Chiefs forward Liam Stewart, who is the son of music star Rod Stewart, and this led to him hanging out with the famed singer at one of his concerts.
In 199 games with the Blaze, Noble recorded 45 points over four seasons. He also played in the EIHL Cup each season he was in Coventry.
In 2016, he played in the Continental Cup against a team from Poland and visited Auschwitz in the process.
Noble is now an assistant coach with the Cranbrook Bucks for their inaugural season and also owns and operates the Columbia Valley Hockey School in Invermere, BC. He also wants to try and play pro hockey in Australia while pursuing a law degree once the COVID-19 pandemic ends.