Hockey Canada is showing their gratitude to an important figure in the local hockey community.

Ferdi Nelissen was given the Western Order of Merit by the national organization earlier this week, which he says is extremely humbling. He says it's not every year that a Manitoban receives this award.

"Last year's winner from Manitoba was Brian Franklin. Unfortunately, he passed away and never got to personally receive it due to COVID," Nelissen explains. "To be put in the same breath as Brian Franklin, who's been volunteering in hockey for 50+ years, and was the president of Hockey Manitoba, is just so humbling and a huge honour."

Nelissen has been a staple in the female hockey community for nearly 25 years and was under the helm of the female U18 Central Plains Capitals when they won their first provincial championship in 2015. He says it was a family member that really got him involved in the game.

"My daughter brought me back to hockey. She started playing when she was little, and I was still dabbling with playing hockey, but she's the one that got me back to coaching and volunteering in the sport two and a half decades ago," Nelissen notes.

At this point, Nelissen has been in involved in almost every aspect of the game, from coaching to scouting. He is currently the regional director for the Central Plains Capitals, the U18 scout for Team Manitoba, and will return to the bench this season as the coach of the female AAA U15 Central Plains Capitals.

Near the beginning of his tenure with the Capitals, he brought the showcase tournament to Portage, which is a place for university and college scouts to see a number of high-level female hockey players under one roof. Nelissen says he's been organizing it for 11 years and notes it's brought a lot of opportunity to Manitoban hockey players.

"In Manitoba in general, we didn't have a showcase for AAA female hockey. University's for the female program don't really have a scouting staff, they're coaches are their scouts," Nelissen continues. "So, when I talked to them, having one in September before they got their season going was ideal, so they could come to view the players on the ice."

These days, all the games on the main rink at Stride Place are live-streamed for coaches to view from anywhere in the world. Nelissen describes the importance of exposure for these athletes.

"It's so important that we get visibility for these young athletes so they can get to the next level," Nelissen explains. "We provide the programs, but if they're not seen, coaches don't know about them. When we started the showcase over a decade ago, that was the initial thought."

He says only six per cent of youth athletes ever get to play college sports. So, he says the most gratifying part of his job over the years has been watching players grow through the system and move beyond it.

"That's the best part of it for me. When you're successful at getting your players those opportunities, it's rewarding. That's what your program should be about, providing an opportunity for your players to learn the skills, become better people, and move onto the next level. Our program here, and the entire Manitoba AAA league, have been very successful at that. That's what we take great pride in."

Nelissen says he's been contacted by a plethora of people in the Central Plains region and beyond congratulating him for this massive accomplishment.

"It's been amazing, overwhelming actually," says Nelissen. "Former players, parents of former players, and people from other teams have all reached out. As a matter of fact, I was big in the fastpitch softball world, and I've been getting reached out to by people I used to play ball against. It's very humbling when you get all those kinds of congratulations."

The man of many titles notes he's very grateful for the recognition but says he couldn't have done this alone. Nelissen gives thanks to all the people that have surrounded him along the journey, especially those who mentored him along the way.