Lismore native being put in hall of fame for volleyball prowess
Neil MacKinnon, third from the left in the front row, poses with the East Pictou Rural High School team that won Nova Scotia ‘A’ volleyball championship in 1975.
LISMORE – Being inducted in the Pictou County Sports Hall of Fame isn’t something new to Neil MacKinnon, but being included as an individual is.
This Saturday he will be recognized for tearing it up on the volleyball court with East Pictou Rural High School, at Canada Games and eventually with St. Francis Xavier University. He’s pretty humble about it all, giving credit to his teammates and coaches over the years.
“This induction here in my mind is really the climax of the whole thing by being recognized as an individual even though over all the years I was involved in team sports,” he said. “If it wasn’t for excellent teammates and coaches I wouldn’t have been so successful. I owe them so much, thanks and gratitude for helping me achieve what I did.”
In the past he’s been inducted in team categories, but this will be the first an individual, at least the Pictou County Hall of Fame. In 2006 he was inducted into the St. FX Sports Hall of Fame.
Playing with the X-Men from 1974-79 at the end of his playing career, MacKinnon was the captain for all four seasons. He was the St. FX rookie of the year in 1975, was a two-time AUAA all-star, two-time MVP at St. FX and helped the team win two AUAA championships. The team’s success in winning their first AUAA championships while he was involved with the X-Men volleyball program was one of his most memorable moments in his career, but it was comparable to some experiences in high school.
“Winning something for the first time is a special thing,” said MacKinnon. “The first time we won high school provincials was a biggie back then. We were able to show we were able to play amongst the province’s best. I had the same feeling when we won at St. FX, but at a different level obviously. Experiencing something for the first time is something special.”
Although he left his mark at the university level it all started in Grade 7 at East Pictou. Coming from a family that had a natural love for sports he was open to trying them all. It was his coach Keith Melanson who got zeroed in on volleyball around junior high, according to MacKinnon.
“There was a core group of us that I was a part of that did what you had to do to be competitive in the province,” he said. “We did what they do nowadays. We were playing all year long and playing good competition to get better. The fruits of our labour definitely paid off.”
Saying they paid off may be an understatement because his list of accomplishments as a volleyball player, even before going to St. FX, is long.
He was part of three NSSAF AAA volleyball championship teams at East Pictou Rural High School, won provincial and Atlantic juvenile championships, won two provincial and Atlantic junior championships, represented Nova Scotia at three national junior men’s volleyball championships, and was selected for the 1975 Canada Games team, which he was also named captain of.
“When we were playing we would eat, sleep and play volleyball,” said MacKinnon. “Winning-wise it definitely paid off for us. Once we started to win and compete with teams around the province we realized we were pretty good and that things were going somewhere.”
The transition to university volleyball was smooth because of the group continuing to play together according to MacKinnon. He said he went from a middle blocker and hitter to a setter and hitter when moving to the X-Men, mostly because of the height difference at the various levels.
Lou Bilek, the coach of the St. FX team at the time, was a friend of Melanson’s and attended a few tournaments. Although there was no recruiting at that time he said Bilek talked to the team and said he’d welcome any players that decided they wanted to go there.
“I think both my early success and the team’s early success was because seven of us went to St. FX and we had played together for so long before going there,” he said. “We all played senior and university teams since Grade 10, so it made us all better. Competition-wise it was a smooth transition because as the years went on we got bigger and stronger, so the guys we struggled to play against when we were in Grade 10, we were ready to face when we played in university.”
After graduating from St. FX he gave back to the sport, going on to coach for 26 years, something he enjoyed greatly. He said that he felt that it was the right thing to do after receiving all the support he had over the years. It was getting involved as a coach that helped him get inducted in the hall before. Not to take away from that, he said that this one would be slightly more special because it’s an individual induction.
“This one (induction) is a little more special than the ones in the past, not that those aren’t in their own way,” he said. “I’m in there with a number of good athletes because Pictou County has a long, strong tradition in sports at a national and international level. I’m honoured to have a small part in it.
“It was by the grace of God and good teammates that I was able to accomplish a lot in the sport and win a number of championships because I only played a small part on every team I played on.”
On Twitter: @NGNewsChris