HALIFAX — Kirk Furey boarded a plane at age 16 with the knowledge his hockey journey – his dream – would likely take him far from home.
Nearly three decades later, that path through leagues on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean brought him right back to where it started.
The Glace Bay, N.S., product, whose playing resume reads like an alphabet soup, was asked in the fall if he would take a break from leading his Austrian club team’s development program to coach the country’s entry at the world junior hockey championship.
The task was daunting. The tournament’s location made it a no-brainer.
“A dream come true,” Furey said. “I don’t think it could really have matched up any better.”
He isn’t kidding.
A small hockey nation, Austria finished 10th at the last two men’s under-20 showcase events, but didn’t have to deal with relegation because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Austrians have also, at least in the short-term, moved away from homegrown coaches, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine meant that country lost the right to host the 2023 tournament.
In stepped Halifax and Moncton, N.B., to fill the void – and provide Furey a scenario he never envisioned.
“The one beauty of East Coast people is when they embrace a situation or their own people, they do it 100 per cent,” said Furey, 46, some 20 years after Halifax first held the world juniors. “I don’t think people really understand the magnitude and what it means to the East Coast.
“Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Couldn’t have written the script any differently or any better.”
His own script, however, has included plenty of twists.
A defenceman on the smaller side at a time when bruising blue-liners were the norm, Furey left Nova Scotia in the mid-1990s because there was no major junior in the province.
A couple seasons in the Ontario Hockey League didn’t go as planned, but he found his way to the Canadian university circuit in his home province with the Acadia Axemen.
“One of the big things with Kirk was just perseverance,” said childhood friend and teammate Robbie Sinclair. “After that he really took off.”
Brad Furey, Kirk’s older brother by a decade and coach growing up, said his younger sibling was a player ahead of his time.
“Beautiful skater,” Brad Furey said. “Had the game already changed, he would have been an elite defenceman.”
Kirk Furey, meanwhile, credits his brother with helping him push through difficult times.
“Every kid playing has moments where you start to question, ‘Is it worth it?'” he said. “There were bumps along the way where I’d call my brother and say, ‘Maybe it’s time to pack it in.’ And he’d go, ‘Just stick it out a bit longer.’
“He kept me going.”
Most players coming out of university hockey, degrees in hand, move into careers off the ice.
But not Furey.
He would spend three seasons split between the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies and Philadelphia Phantoms from 2001 and 2004, including a 30-point campaign in the American Hockey League.
Furey, whose Austrians were blown out in their first two games at the world juniors ahead of Thursday’s date with Canada, was also an inspiration to other Nova Scotia talents looking to make it.
Sinclair recalls having his buddy stay with him one summer between hockey seasons and trying to get him to come out for a beer.
Just one? No dice.
“So dedicated,” Sinclair recalled. “Trained like a hockey player should train.”
Brad Furey wasn’t surprised to hear that story.
“Some very well-known guys from here in hockey have leaned on (Kirk) and asked, ‘What’s it take?'” he said. “He’d tell them, ‘If you’re not the elite of elites, you’re going to have to make yourself elite in the next group by conditioning and dedication.’
“He would tell the guys behind him, ‘You want to make it? You’ve got to be more committed than somebody else.'”
There was an opportunity to sign a two-way NHL contract ahead of the 2004-05 season, but the looming lockout meant Kirk Furey – 28 years old at the time – had a big decision.
He chose Europe.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Furey said. “One thing I never do is look back and ask, ‘What if?’
“I have no regrets.”
It’s not hard to see why.
Three seasons in Germany playing for the Kassel Huskies and Iserlohn Roosters included meeting Jennifer, his future wife from just outside Winnipeg.
The pair would move onto Austria and start a family – they have two kids – where Kirk played eight seasons with Klagenfurt AC before a pivot to coaching with the same organization.
“The journey is not the most conventional,” Furey said. “But it’s definitely something I really believe builds character.
“Taught me a lot.”
Brad Furey said his brother’s journey has been a surprise. The hard work that got him to this point is not.
“Very committed kid,” he said. “People would always ask, ‘What hockey school did he go to or what camps did he go to?’ My parents could never afford anywhere. He was one of those gifted guys.
“He’s never had the easy road.”
There has been plenty of support for Furey from family, friends and fellow Nova Scotians through Austria’s first two games.
Brad’s wife, Karen, knitted tuques with the country’s colours, while the crowd has cheered every shot on target from the overmatched Europeans.
One person who isn’t here is his Kirk and Brad’s father, Jim, who died in 2005.
“My biggest fan,” said Kirk Furey, his voice cracking. “My brother was my support in terms of the tough times.
“But dad was my biggest fan. He was so proud.”
His youngest son – finally – is back home.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2022.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press