Jim Neal started coaching hockey 20 years ago, when his second son began playing the sport.

And even though his two boys are long gone from the North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association (NVMHA), close friendship with his fellow coaches has kept him coming back every year.

The association had the chance to talk with Jim, learning about how he got started with coaching and how the bonds he’s forged with two other coaches has kept him coming to the rink.

His playing years

Jim Neal grew up in Ontario and like many of kids born in the province, he was fortunate enough to have a large outdoor rink near his house.

That’s where he and his six siblings all learned to skate.

When his family moved to Mississauga when he was five, his dad built a rink in their backyard. He started playing minor hockey a few years later and would continue playing. After he finished minor hockey in Ontario, he played intramural hockey in university, the in adult leagues until he was 43-years-old.

The start of a 20-year coaching career

Back in Ontario, Jim’s father coached him. And ultimately, that played a large role in convincing him to coach two of his three kids during their playing careers as well.

“My dad had coached for many years and was involved in hockey well into his 70s back in Ontario,” he explains in an interview. “To me, it just looked like a fun thing to do.”

He began coaching when his second son started to play. This season is his 20th year of coaching, including three years of coaching in Oakville, ON, and an incredible 17 years with NVMHA.

From coaches to friends

And while his two sons are well past their playing days with NVMHA, he explains that a large reason for coming back is the enjoyment of coaching, as well as the bonds he’s forged with two other coaches at North Vancouver Minor.

“When I started coaching in 2007, there was another man (Gus Spanos) who moved out from Ontario in the same year, and his son was on the same team as my son, Robbie,” he explains.

“He signed on as the team’s safety person so he and I have been coaching together for 17 whole years. Then, about 10 years ago, another kid joined our team and his dad (Chris Ferguson) became our assistant coach.”

What started as a coaching trio has spanned into a decade-long friendship, and the three have been coaching together for the past 12 years.

“We often have what we call a ‘coach’s meeting’ after the game to rehash strategies and things like that,” Jim laughs. “Pretty quickly it turns into not just hockey but life and everything else we have going on.”

He adds that not only do the three of them have a great relationship, but they share a similar coaching philosophy and compliment each others’ different strengths.

“It’s cliche but we really want our team to have fun. At this age, U18, they all realize they’re not going to play in the NHL. So when they come to play hockey, I know that they want to play and just have fun.”

The trio has now been coaching U18 for about 10 years, since their three kids finished their playing days with NVMHA.

Jim adds that one of his biggest focuses in coaching, asides from the on-ice skills, is teaching respect and leadership to the entire team.

“I think the biggest thing we work on is respect,” he explains. “Having players respect coaches, officials, their teammates, and the teams we play against. Just be good people. And then tie that into sportsmanship and playing clean.”

“All the players seem to get along and we encourage that outside of the dressing room. We try to make it inclusive and have everyone feeling involved.”

Growing a goalie

One of Jim’s most memorable experiences during his coaching tenure at NVMHA took place two seasons ago, when there was a shortage of goalies at the U18 level.

“There were six teams and only five goalies,” he explains.  “So two years ago, our team didn’t have a goalie and we went a month ago without a goalie, just borrowing from other teams.”

Eventually, a player who wasn’t even on his team volunteered to start playing in net for the first time. Sam had never played goal before, had only played hockey for one year, and was in his first year of U18.

But fuelled by the player’s incredible attitude and work ethic, Jim and his team of coaches took it upon themselves to up their game when it came to working with goalies.

“It can be hard to coach goalies when you have so many players,” he added. “But we learned a lot about coaching goal, we got a lot of support from NVMHA, and just got to work with the player.”

Jim also credited Sam for being a fast learner and putting in a tremendous amount of effort both on and off the ice.

“This kid was amazing,” he recalled. “He was a sponge, determined to be a great goalie. He went to any goalie clinic he could, we managed to arrange some extra coaching for him, and he even got his own workout material that he could do at home.”

“Every time I saw him, his parents were so pleased with the way that he progressed. And he’s still in the league — on one of the other teams — but it’s still great to see him and play against him.”

Rapid fire with Jim Neal

Who’s your favourite NHL player of all time?

Sidney Crosby.

Your favourite NHL team? 

I spent half of my life in Toronto, so it’s hard to lose the Maple Leafs.

Do you have a favourite coach, whether in the NHL or elsewhere? 

I wouldn’t say really in the NHL but my favourite coach would be my dad. He coached me for several years and it was just a great experience, he was a great role model.

When you’re not coaching hockey, what’s your go to pastime? 

I’d say skiing or golf, depending on the season.