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The Whitecaps' Complicated Birthday

The Vancouver club's rocky first 40 reflects those eponymous towering peaks and choppy waves. I know because I was there.

Bob Mackin 3 May

Bob Mackin is a North Vancouver-based journalist who has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since he began as a journalist in 1990. From 1998 to 2008, he was the sports columnist for the Vancouver Courier.

The history of professional soccer in Vancouver isn't so simple as to give today's Major League Soccer version of the Vancouver Whitecaps a birthday cake with 40 candles on top and be done with it.

Sure, this afternoon's anniversary match is against a team from San Jose, just like the Whitecaps' first, almost to the day, 40 years ago. But neither of those North American Soccer League squads made it out of the 1980s alive. So, although this MLS version of the 'Caps displays "Since 1974" on banners at B.C. Place Stadium and on the backs of players' jerseys, the history's a little more complicated.

I should know. I was at that first game as a three-year-old, had odd jobs with the club through the '80s and I'll be there today. I've seen a lot of water between those eponymous mountain peaks and choppy waves.

Get on the Soccer Train

Don't believe me? Let's start with this. Despite today's afternoon kickoff, they're calling it Saturday Night Fever at B.C. Place. The day of the week is correct, but the movie and its soundtrack came three years after the team kicked-off. If there was ever a disco song that defined the Whitecaps, it was "The Sound of Philadelphia," the theme to Soul Train, played as fans filed out of Empire.

Watch 'Caps players get down with "The Sound of Philadelphia" in this recent promotional video.

President Bob Lenarduzzi was on the roster back then, the only player from game one who also suited-up for the team's last game in 1984.

Today's Whitecaps actually date back to 1987 when they were launched as the 86ers in the Canadian Soccer League at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, with Lenarduzzi as the playing coach. That was after the original NASL team folded and the Lower Mainland went two years without local lads to cheer on after that soccer-mad decade.

The NASL, whose backers once hoped to rival the NFL, expanded too fast, spent too much on aging, imported stars, lost too much money on its wintertime indoor soccer league and suffered through the 1982 recession.

San Jose continued on until 1988 in a regional league, and then became an original member of the MLS in 1994; originally the Clash, they were renamed Earthquakes before the 2000 season. The 86ers followed, and became Whitecaps in time for 2001. Trademark-holder John Laxton, who was in charge when the team went bankrupt in 1985, sold then-owner David Stadnyk rights to use the brand.

Before Nash, Another Athlete Owner

Three of the four owners of today's Whitecaps made their fortunes in technology. The other made his money in professional basketball. The original club's genesis and demise were both rooted in oil, and professional football.

Herb Capozzi, who worked for Shell Oil in Calgary while playing for the CFL's Stampeders in the 1950s, was general manager of the B.C. Lions when they won their first Grey Cup in 1964. Capozzi was the Social Credit member for Vancouver Centre under then premier W.A.C. Bennett for six years. The Capozzis in Kelowna became real estate and wine players with money to invest elsewhere. Texas oilman Lamar Hunt, who founded the American Football League, sold Capozzi on soccer being the sport of the future.

Capozzi paid $25,000 to enter the NASL and guaranteed to finance the team to the tune of $500,000 over three years -- a mere sliver of the $30 million paid for the current club to enter Major League Soccer in 2011.

Vancouver's NASL entry was announced Dec. 11, 1973 and it took a quick 145 days from the award to kickoff. The Whitecaps had an office and team comprised mostly of locals.

Capozzi's right-hand man, general manager Denny Veitch, came up with the Whitecaps' name while driving over Lions Gate Bridge one day when the water below was choppy and clouds weren't obscuring the snowy North Shore mountains -- white-capped waves, white-capped mountains. The original logo featuring stylized waves was deemed too close for comfort to the Vancouver Business Bureau's brand, so a maple leaf on a soccer ball was used instead.

(Keeping it all in the family, Lenarduzzi eventually married general manager Veitch's daughter, Deanne.)

Capozzi invited any and all amateur soccer players to see the May 5, 1974 debut for free. Season tickets were priced at $3 to $5 per game. Some 17,343 showed up. As a three-year-old at the time, I mostly remember staying dry with my mother under the roof near the press box, where my father worked with CJOR Radio. We sat on the unyielding wooden planks, Empire didn't have seats as we know them.

San Jose's Spanish-born star Mani Hernandez scored first before Neil Ellett equalized on a Glen Johnson corner kick. Johnson was a bigger name than Lenarduzzi at the time; he spent three years with England's First Division West Bromwich Albion, a rare achievement for a Canadian, let alone a British Columbian. Thirteen of the 17 players under Scottish import coach Jim Easton were products of B.C. youth soccer or local amateur leagues. The roster was filled-out by imports goalkeeper Sam Nusum of Bermuda, and the Scottish trio of defender Charlie Palmer, midfielder Willie Stevenson and forward George "Dandy" McLean. Today's Whitecaps have three Canadians on the main roster, none hailing from B.C.

The first game was settled with a penalty kick shootout in favour of San Jose. The NASL eschewed ties and several other rules set by FIFA.

Capozzi knew the team needed gimmicks to consistently push attendance beyond 10,000. In their sophomore season, a horse called Pride, ridden by a knight in shining armor, was sent around the Empire track whenever the team scored. When San Jose visited in June 1975, Capozzi offered full refunds for 48 hours after the game to anyone who didn't enjoy the game. He claimed about 30 people took him up on the offer.

The New York Cosmos came with their newly signed Brazilian legend Pele for a July 7 exhibition game, that drew a best-yet 26,495. The Whitecaps began their MLS era at a temporary stadium at Empire Bowl, and announced 27,500 for a July 2011 game against the L.A. Galaxy, the MLS club that emulates the Cosmos. Most fans bought their tickets expecting to see English superstar David Beckham -- the continent's highest-paid player since Pele -- but settled for Landon Donovan instead.

A Village Moves Downtown

The Whitecaps were the NASL's best regular season squad in 1978 at 24-6 and became the best in the playoffs a year later. With a new cyan blue, royal blue and white colour scheme, they won their only Soccer Bowl after drawing 30,000-plus crowds for their three home playoff games at Empire. The Canucks and Lions were taking a backseat to the Whitecaps as the '70s turned into the '80s and soccer was the sport to watch and play.

The week after upsetting the Cosmos at Giants Stadium, they returned to edge the Tampa Bay Rowdies, live on ABC's Wide World of Sports. Host Jim McKay speculated that the soccer-mad west coast city "must be like a deserted village" while the Sept. 8, 1979 game aired.

Former Ipswich Town mainstay Trevor Whymark scored both goals in the 2-1 win. A parade, organized overnight, drew 100,000 downtown. From the back of the stage at Robson Square, I heard then mayor Jack Volrich boldly promise "a brand new stadium for them to play in." By virtue of my father's job, I got into the supporters and sponsors' reception where a cowboy-hatted Carl Valentine put down his stubby Labatt Blue bottle to talk and sign my Whitecaps' Soccer Bowl pennant.

That stadium did get built, on the shores of False Creek, with then premier Bill Bennett's name on the plaque. The Whitecaps moved in on June 20, 1983 when 2-1 was the score over the Seattle Sounders on Peter Beardsley's goals before the full house of 60,000. English phenom Beardsley went on to star with Liverpool, Everton and Newcastle. Fans did the Wave; British commentators still call it the Mexican Wave, but we were doing it in Vancouver three years before the 1986 World Cup.

The team averaged 29,000 fans in 1983, but the honeymoon was over in 1984 as the league contracted again. Capozzi sold control to oilman J. Bob Carter. After the first five games they averaged 11,900 and Carter said they needed 31,000 to survive. Mayor Mike Harcourt stepped in, with his Rally Round the Caps campaign. He hoped to generate $500,000 worth of discounted ticket subscriptions, but only $153,000 was raised. Carter didn't follow through on his threat to shut the team in mid-season. The 150 or so season ticketholders who sat in level 4 were relocated to level 2 to save money.

Behind the scenes, Carter sometimes paid the players pre and post-game locker room visits. Back then, I was the press box runner for CKWX and among my duties was to take Neil Macrae's interview tape with coach Alan Hinton to the broadcast booth as fast as possible. On one occasion, Carter's address contained words that the CRTC wouldn't have allowed and neither would my parents have been pleased to hear me repeat at the dinner table. Carter had a salty tongue and a penchant for attracting police and media attention for the wrong reasons; Carter's tryst with two teenage prostitutes landed him a $3,000 gross indecency fine.

The Whitecaps secured a playoff berth against the Chicago Sting for a best-of-three series, with tickets priced at $9 to $14 at the B.C. Place box office. The Sept. 23 match, a 3-1 Whitecaps' loss before 14,753, turned out to be the last NASL Whitecaps' game at B.C. Place and tied the series 1-1. Five days later, Chicago eliminated the Whitecaps 4-3 and advanced to the last Soccer Bowl, in which they beat the Toronto Blizzard.

After the season was over, players had to scramble to get paid. Lenarduzzi was given free agency. Lawsuits started to flow, including one from former landlord PNE.

By early February 1985, the score for the Caps was roughly $50,000 assets and $2.5 million debts. A bankruptcy trustee was appointed to liquidate what was left. The biggest debt owed was $1.4 million to Bank of Montreal, which, coincidentally, is the new Whitecaps' official bank sponsor.

The last public event in club history was the March 14, 1985 auction in the East Annex of the B.C. Pavilion; a building left over from the 1954 British Empire Games that I normally visited with wide eyes, because it housed the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame and the giant Challenger Relief Map of B.C. On this occasion, I left with tears in my eyes. The Bob Lenarduzzi game-worn jerseys were in the $100 range. Buzz Parsons' trademark white boots were also beyond the budget for a 14-year-old with an after school newspaper delivery gig.

Everything Must Go, Some Things Come Back

Nowadays, Greg Kerfoot, principal owner since 2002, goes out of his way to avoid the media. Unlike 1984, there aren't lurid headlines about the owner, desperate public appeals to buy tickets or angry dressing room speeches to the players.

Today's Whitecaps use less than half of the renovated B.C. Place and, when the weather co-operates, the 2011-installed retractable roof is opened. Today they're poised to announce their 21st 21,000 sellout over four years -- not 20,999 or 21,001, but 21,000. For those who can't afford the $29.25 to $148.75 seats, games can be found on TV or the Internet. The audience is the most multicultural in local sports and despite the lack of B.C. products, the roster features players from 16 countries.  [Tyee]

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