Hometown Champion

By Kevin McKay

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Bobby Lenarduzzi at the Vancouver Whitecaps Football Club. Photos: Bob Frid

Some athletes do more than just play, coach or manage the game with great talent, passion and excellence. There are those who transcend the games they play and become the face of their sport, like Tiger Woods for golf, Wayne Gretzky for hockey or Babe Ruth for baseball. Though he may not have earned the same statistical excellence as Gretzky, for example, there can be little argument that for more than four decades Bobby Lenarduzzi has been the face of soccer in Canada. He has played professional soccer in Vancouver as a member of both the Whitecaps and 86ers, has been a player-coach and then a head coach of both the 86ers and the Canadian men’s national team and an executive with the Whitecaps.  In the sport of soccer no other Canadian can claim even half of Bobby’s accomplishments.

Born in Vancouver in 1955, Bobby was the third son of Giovanni and Clelia Lenarduzzi, who had immigrated to Canada in 1952. Growing up with older brothers Vanni and Sam, and younger brother Dan meant plenty of time on the soccer pitch at nearby Callister Park and then minor soccer with the Grandview Legion. For young Bobby, there was never a moment’s doubt what he wanted to do with his life.

“I was totally driven to be a professional soccer player,” he says. “I was absolutely certain that I was going to make it and nothing was going to stop me.”

At the tender age of 15, Bobby was recruited to go overseas and join the Reading soccer club, which was located about 40 kilometres west of London. While it was not common for a youngster from Vancouver to be playing abroad, those clubs still knew how to keep their young players humble. Bobby remembers, “At that time it was nothing like it is for the players today. I remember the first day I arrived; they took me into the boot room and showed me multiple pairs of soccer boots. I was told these were mine to keep clean for the senior players. It was a good lesson and helped keep you from getting too full of yourself. I wound up staying for five years and played 67 first team games.”

In 1974, the Vancouver Whitecaps joined the fledgling North American Soccer League and for the team’s first two seasons Bobby joined the team on loan from Reading, playing in Vancouver during his off season in the United Kingdom. He became a fixture right away and enjoyed playing on the same squad as his brothers Sam and Dan.

In fact, while there have been more than one set of three brothers to play for the same team in the NHL, the Lenarduzzis were the only brother act to accomplish this feat in the 17-year history of the NASL, an accomplishment of which Bobby is justifiably proud. He still remembers clearly the first time the trio were on the pitch in the same game.

“We were playing San Jose in a game we won 6-0, and Sam and I were already playing when Danny came in with about 20 minutes to go. It was such a thrill to know we were all playing together, and even better knowing my Dad was up in the stands watching us, bursting with pride. We even were all in on a passing play that lead to the last goal of the game.”

In all, Bobby would play for the Whitecaps for all 11 seasons they competed until the league folded following the 1984 season. He holds the league record for most games played at 312, is the only player to have played all 11 positions in the league, was the only Canadian to win North American Player of the Year Award when he won in 1978, and was part of the Whitecaps in their magical run of 1979, culminating in the team winning the league’s Soccer Bowl championship over the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

The mid-1980s also saw a couple of career milestones for Bobby. Playing for the Canadian men’s national team, Bobby played a key role in helping the team compete in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and he anchored Canada’s back line when the Canadian men made their only appearance in a World Cup finals tournament. In Los Angeles, the team advanced out of the group stage only to lose to Brazil 2-1 in a penalty shoot-out. In Mexico, the team lost three tough games to the Soviet Union, France and Hungary.  

“It was always a great experience to represent your country,” says Bobby. “I loved playing for Canada against the best teams in the world. It was a real honour. I managed to exchange jerseys after all three of the World Cup matches we played and those jerseys are now hanging in the BC Sports Hall of Fame.”

Later, following his playing career, Bobby accepted the post of head coach of the Canadian men’s national team, a job he held from 1993 to 1997. His teams were in the running to compete in the World Cup championships of 1994 and 1998, and came close to qualifying, but ultimately came up short. Playing and coaching the team in away games during these competitions is always challenging when travelling to CONCACAF countries.

“In those countries soccer is like a religion to them, kind of like we see hockey here in this country,” recalls Bobby. “The fans live and die with their teams and will do anything to help their teams win. It is very common to see armed guards with weapons drawn all around the stadium, fans chanting, throwing things. At night, they would chant and sing and bang drums outside your hotel all night long. Personally, I always thought this was complimentary to our team. If they weren’t worried about us and didn’t see us as a threat, they would not have bothered.”

After the NASL folded, Bobby played indoor soccer for a couple of years before the Canadian Soccer League was formed. He returned to the field as a player/coach in 1987. Following the 1988 season, he hung up his soccer boots for good to become the team’s full-time coach. Under his leadership, the 86ers went on one of the most amazing runs in the history of all North American sports leagues. In addition to winning four consecutive Canadian championships from 1988 to 1991, they embarked on an undefeated run from June 5 1988 to August 8, 1988. The team won 37 games and tied nine to establish an unvanquished streak of 46 games, something no other North American team has equalled.

Following the demise of the Canadian Soccer League in 1992, the Vancouver club played in various North American leagues until they once again started using the name Whitecaps in 2001, and competed in the United Soccer League until joining Major League Soccer in 2011. Bobby has served as team president for all five years of the team’s existence and, in that time, the team has qualified for the playoffs in three of the five seasons, hosting their first home playoff game in 2015.

“For the future, I would like to see us continue to evolve as a club.  Over the five years, each season we have gotten a little better and I hope that continues into next season and beyond. I also hope we continue to perform well enough to continue to attract the kind of crowds we get out to BC Place and we are forced, at some point, to actually expand our capacity because there is more of a demand than we have seats available.”

“I have been involved with Vancouver teams for 42 years now and I thought we had seen the best of professional soccer back in the late ’70s and early ’80s when we played to big crowds and thought we were going in the right direction only to see things crash. The difference now is this is sustainable,” says Bobby. “We need to appreciate as a club that we have a wonderful opportunity to not just rest on our laurels, but continue to do all the things we do on the pitch and off the pitch. I believe the two are related, and that presence in the community and your willingness to give back in the community are something that when you run into tough times on the pitch from the results standpoint, if you are seen as a good community citizen, that buys you some goodwill.”

To prove he does more than talk the talk, you need look no further than how his team has been built following the example of many successful European clubs with the first team being on the top of the pyramid and an entire organization below supporting that team. They have a second professional team, which plays in the USL to give the younger players a chance to develop, residency programs, a BC soccer high performance program, soccer academies, scholarships awarded and even camps, tournaments and clinics for youth. The team’s stated mission is to be a champion club on and off the soccer pitch.

“We try to live up to our team motto – Our all. Our honour. – every day and we strive to have our entire organization do so as well. Part of our goal is to be a significant community asset. We want to engage our fans and promote excellence in all we do both on the field and off of it. I am very pleased with the progress our team has shown under Coach Carl Robinson, but I am equally proud of how we are viewed as an organization in this community.”

If you were to meet yourself at age 20, what advice would you give yourself?
“If I could go back in time and talk to myself when I was a 20-year old, I would have given myself the exact same advice I got when I was around that age from Alan Hinton. He was a veteran player from England who was supposed to be an assistant coach and wound up having a wonderful season for us, setting a league record for assists. He told me and the other young players, at the time, to savour and appreciate every moment of our playing careers. He told us that no matter how long they lasted we would miss the game so much when we finished playing. I reflect back now and realize how right he was and wish that I had paid more attention to his advice.”

Who or what has influenced you the most? And why?
“Without a doubt it was my parents. My father was the perfect sports dad.  He allowed us to play and encouraged us without pushing too hard. He would support me and my brothers, he would go to our games, but he would never get overly critical. My mother didn’t like to come to many games but she also supported us. We used to live near Empire Stadium, where our home games were played, and she would listen for the roar of the crowd to tell her something good had happened. My brothers were also great influences on me, supporting me in following my dream.”

What does courage mean to you?
“From a sporting perspective, courage is having the ability to be able to accept that sometimes things don’t go your way and you need to have the fortitude to correct your performance, so you can perform to your highest level. I know it is an issue for a lot of players. When they make a mistake, sometimes it impacts them to the point where the mistake gets compounded by either not wanting the ball or, when they get it, being so anxious they can’t perform. Courage is being able to make a mistake, brush it off, and get on with the game.
On the personal side, eventually everyone suffers some personal setbacks with illness or death in the family. You need to work your way through your loss. That’s not suggesting if you suffer a loss, you just say that’s that. You grieve in the way you should and remember in the way you should. The immediate emotion is sadness and you wish they could still be with you but, over time, recall the good moments, the good memories you have had with the people that are gone and that has certainly helped me.  So I think courage is to accept it is inevitable, it is going to happen.  You are going to suffer loss and adversity, but whatever it is you go through, you can’t dwell on it.”

What does success mean to you?
“Seeing my family do well. Deanne and I have two children and they are both very successful in their lives and their careers. We have been fortunate in our lives to have a chance to accomplish some nice things professionally along the way, but what matters most is family. I am pleased we can look back with pride and know that we have passed along the lessons we learned to the next generation. We look forward to watching them continue to grow.”




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