West Van winning the day for coach Mike MacNeil

Highlanders rally in memory of beloved school leader

West Vancouver Secondary may have lost one of its greatest champions, but that hasn’t stopped students, coaches and teachers throughout the school community from forever fighting to win the day.

Mike MacNeil was a longtime teacher, coach, athletic director and counsellor at West Van Secondary, a warm and kind fixture who was often found planted right near the entrance greeting students by name and joking with fellow teachers about the latest flops in their fantasy football league. He was a safe harbour that so many in the school community latched on to.

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“If you want to capture what a teacher should be, Mike was that,” said fellow teacher and close friend Stefan Huskilson. “He cared deeply for the kids that he worked with. He didn’t judge them, he was very even-keeled and quiet with them at all times. I think the biggest thing you could say is that he put all of them at ease. Regardless of what they came through the door with, they all felt at ease.”

Some of his biggest wins came on the volleyball court, where MacNeil was a fixture with the girls program. His teams were good, and that was no accident, said Huskilson, who first met MacNeil when they coached a West Van basketball team together. Huskilson recalls that when MacNeil first started coaching volleyball he would end his school days by zipping over to Capilano University, then known as Capilano College, to watch the Blues practice, particularly following the lead of legendary women’s coach Wayne Desjardins.

“He watched their practices to improve himself as a coach and to be better at his trade,” said Huskilson. “When you want to talk about hard work, he definitely not only believed in that from his athletes, but he modeled that through the process through which he became a better coach.”

Win the day – or, in the parlance of our times, #wintheday – became a kind of mantra for MacNeil when he was coaching. It didn’t, however, have much to do with the numbers on the scoreboard. 

“Just take one day at a time and win the day for yourself,” said Huskilson. “Pick what you think you need to win out of the day and make sure you do that.”

His presence extended far beyond the court, said Jo-Anne McKee, who followed in MacNeil’s footsteps as West Van’s co-athletic director and counted the coach as a mentor and close friend.

“It was beyond just volleyball for the players,” she said. “He was somebody who cared about them. It wasn’t all just about sport – it was about caring for one another, supporting one another.”

“Let me put it to you this way,” added Huskilson. “If I had had a daughter who played volleyball, I would have been thrilled to have him coaching my kid. It would have been not only an excellent athletic experience, but a safe experience for that kid as well.”

His reach at the school wasn’t limited to athletic arenas either, particularly after he went back to school himself to train as a counsellor. Once he took that role at the school, students flocked to him.

“He was an incredibly approachable guy,” said Huskilson. “It didn’t matter what grade they were in, they were always in his office for multitudes of reasons. He really looked after them. He was really special, and really gifted at what he did.”

And there was a lot of power in his simple gestures, just the act of being in the hallways and knowing kids by name, said McKee.

“I would see him just walking the halls during the day, and it was just for him to check in wherever he could to say hi to students,” she said. “He thought there was a lot of value in just that gesture of ‘hello’ and acknowledging a kid’s name and knowing who they are, how powerful that can be to a kid’s day.”

Cancer came quickly. MacNeil was diagnosed in January and entered treatment, but the cancer was aggressive and progressed faster than anyone anticipated. Summer came, and MacNeil made plans to come back in the fall and coach the Highlanders again. He never made it back.

MacNeil died Aug. 9 surrounded by members of his family. He was 47 years old.

The empty space near the front entrance of West Van Secondary is noticeable this fall.

“Mike’s missed. We all miss him,” said Huskilson.

“Coming back to school just expecting him to be there and he wasn’t, I think a lot of people are just – we’re in shock, really,” added McKee. “It’s little things like walking up to his office and expecting him to be there. Those little moments that you forget that he’s not in the building. … He really genuinely was a good, kind person who cared for others. Those people are rare, really. I personally miss him a lot.”

Staff and students, however, are still working to win the day for their coach and friend. Early in the school year two volleyball players, sisters Macey and Libby Meldrum, organized a campaign to make and sell T-Shirts bearing MacNeil’s #wintheday mantra. The volleyball teams are now wearing them as warmup shirts, and all proceeds from sales – which are at more than $2,000 already – will go to cancer research in MacNeil’s name.

The Highlanders athletic community, led by senior girls coach Kathy Finch, who worked in the volleyball program alongside MacNeil for many years, has organized a volleyball tournament for the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 23. It’ll be called Win the Day Tournament and will feature four North Shore teams playing a pair of matches each followed by a barbecue and community gathering. Proceeds from the tournament will go towards starting a scholarship for volleyball players in MacNeil’s name.

The ongoing efforts to recognize and honour their coach and friend are a testament to the impact MacNeil made during his time at the school, said Huskilson. 

“It’s what we all hope for as educators and coaches, that we’re having an impact,” he said. “Education, counselling and coaching – it’s about working with kids and trying to have a positive impact on their lives. And I think it’s very clear, based upon everything that I’ve seen over the last few months, that Mike exemplified that. I think he is probably the kind of coach, counsellor, teacher that many of us aspire to be.”

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