Heather Neale Furneaux admits she was disbelieving when she got the call from Hockey Canada. The national governing body’s selection panel — which included Olympic gold-medallists Cassie Campbell-Pascall, Gina Kingsbury and Caroline Ouellette — had selected her as 2022 BFL Female Coach of the Year for B.C.
“I was in shock,” said Neale Furneaux.
“We are in it for the kids and I feel so lucky to be able to work with them. It’s weird being on the other end of that.”
Hockey Canada names coaches of the year for each province and territory. Neale Furneaux’s work with the Victoria Reign U-11 and U-7 girls’ teams was noticed by her players, managers, parents and officials in the Capital Region Female Minor Hockey Association.
“Heather’s leadership is inspiring the next generation of hockey players on Vancouver Island to become the next Micah Zandee-Hart,” wrote Melanie Bradford, Reign team manager, referring to the 2022 Beijing Olympics gold-medallist blue-liner from Saanichton.
Bradford added in her nomination letter: “Heather is an outstanding female hockey coach dedicated to empowering girls through sport. She leads with respect and kindness both on and off the ice.”
Bradford cited Neale Furneaux’s rallying speech amid the players’ trauma and tears following the 16-0 Reign U-11 loss in the first game of the season: “She told the girls how proud she was of them — that they are strong and resilient.”
Neale Furneaux’s daughters Malia and Audrey played on the Reign U-11 and U-7 teams, respectively.
“I want to instill in the players a love of sport and a love of self,” said Neale Furneaux.
Neale Furneaux, 44, plays in local women’s leagues and hails from a hockey family so the sport came naturally to her. What makes the award even more gratifying is that her dad, Alan Neale, won the B.C. Hockey Ernie Gare Award as provincial coach of the year during his career at the Racquet Club of Victoria which included mentoring several WHL and BCHL juniors, NCAA collegians and eventual pros. That included Neale Furneaux’s brother, David Neale, who played in the BCHL for the Victoria Salsa, NCAA Div. 1 at the University of Denver, and pro in the ECHL with the San Diego Gulls and Victoria Salmon Kings.
“There’s a full circle feel to this,” said Neale Furneaux, a high school Spanish teacher and knowledge translator for UBC.
But it’s not all about making the juniors, pros, NCAA or Olympics, she said: “At our level, some player are highly competitive and others less so. I tell the players it feels good to push your limits, whatever they may be. Players carry their youth sports memories for a lifetime, even if it’s just remembering the tournaments and the hotel room and waterslide.”