Born and raised in the Peace Country, Neil Evans has a passion for extolling the virtues of the northeastern corner of the province.
He organizes the largest outdoor pond hockey tournament in Western Canada, the Crystal Cup, which is coming up on its fourth year this February. He’s a major local proponent of Movember, the men’s health movement that transforms moustaches into dollars to fund prostate cancer research, and has raised over $25,000 over the past five years.
Most recently, he was recognized with 21 others as a torchbearer for not only the region, but the whole country, during the 2015 Canada Winter Games Torch Relay on Nov. 22.
It isn’t that hard to see why. Looking at where he’s most involved in the community, from sport to health care, those are the areas that strike a note with residents. They also happen to align with his interests.
Evans hasn’t lived here all his life, but he said he plans on staying here for the rest of it. He lived in the Lower Mainland for a while, and went to nursing school in Victoria before moving back in 2007 with his wife Loni, who was also born and raised here.
He worked in the intensive care unit of the Fort St. John Hospital for five years, eventually moving his way up a few floors to the position of patient unit manager.
He said he remembers moving back that Labour Day long weekend in 2007 very clearly – going in for his first day of work at the Hospital.
“It was a very unique feeling knowing that I’m going to be working in the facility that I was born in ... lots of family and friends were born in, and people had passed away in. There was an automatic connection back into the community, and then I knew I’d be there for quite some time.”
Evans speaks through a patchy moustache that he’s the first to laugh about, with a leaned-back, confident gait. Movember is one of the first things he really got into when he moved back here, starting in 2009. One of his coworkers in the ICU told him about it, and while Fort St. John certainly isn’t lacking in fundraisers, this one jumped out at him.
He was working in health care, and he thought the issue of men’s health could use more exposure, especially in this region.
“If you look at our community, there’s definitely a significant male population, a transient male population. And we get these tough, gruff guys that work in the oilfield that don’t want to talk about their health,” said Evans. “It was definitely an uphill challenge, and that’s what I wanted to do, was hit this challenge head-on and get the word out.”
Evans is happy with how the movement has grown: “If you look at it now ... you have every major oilfield company involved. You look outside of that, you have every sports team involved out there, and it’s really cool how it’s blossomed since 2009 when I first got into it.”
Neil and Loni Evans since had two sons – Linden, 3, and Maverick, 1. He said that having young children has limited how much time he’s been able to spend on his Movember campaign this year, but that doesn’t stop him from sporting the ‘stache.
Sport is Evans’ other passion that he’s translated into community development, partly through organizing the Crystal Cup four years ago. It’s now the biggest outdoor pond hockey tournament in Western Canada.
Last year, the NHL tweeted out a picture of the event, which takes place on the south end of Charlie Lake. He said that got them a lot of attention on a national – and even international – level.
The idea came when Fort St. John wanted an event that would appeal to men ages 19 to 35 to incorporate into the High on Ice Festival the city puts on every year. Evans was already involved with hockey, and he and some friends got together and came up with the Crystal Cup.
“The first year we opened it up to 40 teams and got 28 teams, which is awesome for a first annual event,” he said. “Ever since then it’s evolved.”
This year, they have 40 teams in the general division, five teams in the women’s division, and for the first time they’ll have 10 teams in a master’s division for those who are 40-plus. They also have a kids’ tournament during the weekend.
“In the beginning, [the goal] was definitely to get that target audience of 19 to 35, and we nailed that really quick, and then just expanded from there,” said Evans. “We’ve incorporated ... everyone we can, because it’s such a fun outdoor event that gets the community together, and gets you in the winter spirit.”
Evans said the tournament hasn’t had a problem getting sponsors for the event, including for a beer garden to relax in, and this year they’re planning to have an ice bar.
“Pond hockey: it’s so Canadiana that it’s not even funny. You think of Canada, you think hockey, right?” said Evans. “And the feel out there is amazing, especially when we have the night games with the floodlights out – it’s beautiful,” he said.
Most recently, Evans was involved in the torch relay for the 2015 Canada Winter Games that went through Fort St. John on a snowy Saturday. Originally, he was supposed to start the relay, but when the final torchbearer was too sick to attend the event, he was asked to bring it through the final leg.
“I said yes, immediately,” he said.
“I’ll never forget the van ride following the runners through town, and just the conversation was hilarious, really fun, leading up to Centennial Park, and then stepping out of the van and Gail Weber handing it over to me,” Evans said, describing the final moments of the relay.
“She passed it on to me just outside of Centennial Park. I was obviously very nervous. No. 1, I didn’t want this flame to go out, so I was very hesitant to run ... I two-handed it very slowly through the park and walked right up to the stage. It was such a cool feeling being surrounded by the other 20 torchbearers, and then presenting it to the CEO of the Games.”
He said that feeling didn’t disappear right away.
“I went home with my family shortly afterwards, and carried on with life. Then I thought about it the second day, I was like, ‘I just held the torch for all of Canada.’ We’re talking literally everyone in Canada!” He paused, letting that sink in.
Evans stressed the importance of his family to all of his accomplishments.
“The only reason I can do what I do is because of family,” he said. “Obviously it’s a bit of a sacrifice sometimes to my family, but my family comes first at all times. I try to make that very clear, and then I try to do this on the side, if I can.”
Evans pointed specifically to his father, Larry, a longtime member of the Fort St. John City Council. He said his father has been a role model for his involvement in the community.
“He’s a perfect example of how you can make a small community a better place: you get involved,” he said.
Asked if he had any of his own aspirations for council, he laughed: “I get that question all the time.”