Rookie coach ‘excited’ for new challenge
In the spring of 2007, the Vancouver Giants were deep into a Western Hockey League playoff run that, a few weeks later, would culminate with a Memorial Cup championship – major junior hockey’s top prize.
But first, the Giants had to get past the Medicine Hat Tigers in the Western Hockey League final.
So, in an attempt to give his Giants’ teammates as much of an advantage as possible, Vancouver’s backup goaltender Blaine Neufeld – who had played in Medicine Hat the previous two seasons – found himself in the team’s video room, helping the coaching staff break down tape of his old team.
During one particular stretch of video study, Giants’ coach Don Hay – one of the most successful coaches in WHL history – paused, and said to Neufeld words the 19-year-old netminder had not expected to hear.
“You know, you’re going to be a great coach one day.”
Fast forward a few years, and behind a bench is exactly where Neufeld – who was named the Surrey Eagles’ new head coach in July – finds himself, just as his old coach predicted.
It’s funny how things work out.
“I was pretty surprised when Don said that to me,” said Neufeld, now 27, laughing at the memory.
“I was like, ‘Coaching? What are you talking about? I want to play. But when a guy like Don says that, you listen, and start to think maybe he’s right.”
After the Giant’s Memorial Cup title, Neufeld – a Winkler, Man. native – played his final year of junior hockey for the Grande Prairie Storm of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
After his junior career ended, he returned home to Manitoba and began helping out with a major-midget team, eventually taking over the program as head coach.
From there, the young coach moved through the ranks, as a goalie coach/assistant coach with the Junior ‘A’ Winkler Flyers, while also working out west with various hockey academies in B.C., as well as with Pro4 Sports – a sports training company now closely associated with the Eagles.
Neufeld was originally hired by the Eagles as their director of hockey operations, and a few months later was tabbed by president Chuck Westgard to take over from departed head coach/general manager Peter Schaefer.
The move – which was long rumoured in local hockey circles – seemed curious at the time, considering Schaefer had taken a rebuilding team, which was just one year removed from a BC Hockey League title, and steered it into the playoffs.
But in July, Schaefer and Westgard – who bought out many minority ownership partners in the spring – decided a split was best.
And though Neufeld has no head-coaching experience at the Junior ‘A’ level – and will be the youngest coach in the BCHL next season – Westgard told PAN earlier this summer that he was not concerned.
“He’s not coming out of nowhere. He’s a hockey guy,” he said.
Since joining the club’s front office in April, Neufeld has spent much time trying to familiarize himself with the league and its players. Those efforts have simply been ramped up since adding the head-coaching job to his portfolio.
He’s been busy, too, bringing in a handful of players with local ties, while also searching to find replacements for two key forwards – Boston Bruins’ draft pick Danton Heinen and Anthony Conti – who chose to leave for the NCAA a year earlier than originally expected.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” Neufeld said. “But I’m enjoying it. With the group (of players) we have, I’m very excited. I’ll be busy scouting guys, and trying to find ways to make the team better. You just have to put in the time.”
Late month, Neufeld also traded Demico Hannoun – who played last year in Vernon but was a key member of the Eagles during the 2012/13 season – to the Penticton Vees, in exchange for defenceman Alex Coulombe and future considerations. Hannoun was acquired by the Eagles earlier this offseason.
The Eagles’ training camp opens this week, and Neufeld said he’s leaving a few roster spot open to competition.
But regardless of how things shake down at camp, the rookie head coach said he’ll draw on lessons learned from two fairly influential former coaches – Hay and former Medicine Hat bench boss Willie Desjardins, now the head coach of the Vancouver Canucks.
“I think I’m a mix of both those guys. They’re both great coaches,” Neufeld said.
“Willie is probably more of a ‘players’ coach’ than Don is, but I loved how Don challenged us.
“For some guys, maybe that meant getting in our faces a little bit, but he was great. He really pushed us.”