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Columbus Blue Jackets fire Ken Hitchcock; name Claude Noel interim coach

Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock, rear center, stands behind Blue Jackets' Jakub Voracek, left, of the Czech Republic, and R.J. Umberger during the third period of a NHL pre-season hockey game in Pittsburgh Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Gene J. Puskar

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Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock, rear center, stands behind Blue Jackets' Jakub Voracek, left, of the Czech Republic, and R.J. Umberger during the third period of a NHL pre-season hockey game in Pittsburgh Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Gene J. Puskar

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Columbus Blue Jackets have fired coach Ken Hitchcock less than two weeks before he'll step behind the bench as an assistant with Team Canada.

The NHL team made the move Wednesday, promoting assistant Claude Noel on an interim basis.

Hitchcock had coached in Columbus since November 2006 and led the franchise to its first playoff berth last spring. However, the team has been stuck in a rut for much of this season and rumours about his job security had lingered over the past couple months.

"This season has been very disappointing for the Blue Jackets organization and our fans and the responsibility for that rests with all of us from management to the coaches and players," GM Scott Howson said in a statement.

"Hitch worked tirelessly to build an identity for this team that was missing before he arrived and deserves a great deal of credit for those efforts. He earned and received the opportunity to turn things around this season, but unfortunately that has not happened and it has become apparent that change is in the best interest of our organization."

The Blue Jackets sit 14th in the Western Conference with a 22-27-9 record. They were beaten 5-1 in Colorado on Tuesday night.

It's the second time Hitchcock has been fired from a coaching job in the weeks leading up to the Olympics - the Dallas Stars let him go on Jan. 25, 2002, and Canada went on to win gold in Salt Lake City the following month with Hitchcock serving as an assistant.

He'll hold the same role on Mike Babcock's staff at the Vancouver Olympics - his third straight Games.

Hitchcock is often labelled a demanding coach, but has been one of the most respected in the NHL for more than a decade. He won a Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999, led the team to a runner-up finish the following year, and helped guide the Philadelphia Flyers to the Eastern Conference final in 2004.

The 58-year-old native of Edmonton surpassed 1,000 games coached earlier this season and has a career regular-season record of 533-350-158.

Hitchcock's other international assignments include a head coaching job at the 2008 IIHF World Hockey Championship and assistant roles at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and 1987 world junior championship.

Noel, meanwhile, steps into his first head coaching role with an NHL team.

The 54-year-old had been working as an assistant with the Blue Jackets since June 2007. Prior to that, he spent four seasons coaching the American Hockey League's Milwaukee Admirals, a team he guided to the Calder Cup in 2004.

"Claude Noel is a good hockey coach with a proven track record in the American Hockey League," said Howson. "He knows our team and is deserving of this opportunity."

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