Wednesday, 3 February 2016

My First Professional Contract

You know, I still remember the day the phone call came through. We Were sitting upstairs as a family in the tv room in our house in Victoria, I was 15.  "Hello Shel, this is the General Manager of the Edmonton Brickmen in the Canadian Soccer League and I would like to talk with you about playing for our team!" I am pretty sure that I almost fell over backwards, as this is something that I had dreamed about for years- the opportunity to play professional soccer. Which also meant moving away from home at the age of 16 years.

The first stages of my time with the team included staying with a 30+ year old Brazilian player in a one bedroom apartment while the team was away on a road trip. Since I was still in junior high, I had to wait to finish school for the year until I could make my way to Edmonton. After a couple of weeks of living on my own the team was kind enough to relocate me to live with Ross Ongaro, who was a former professional in the NASL with the Edmonton Drillers and finishing his career with the Brickmen. It was a much more suitable living arrangement, as I now had the benefit of living full-time with a former pro and his family. There was also another well travelled professional living with the Ongaro family by the name of Tony Peznecker. This would be the beginning of some invaluable mentorring, as during the season I became very close with John Baretta, who was a goalkeeper for the Brickmen with NASL experience. He treated me like a son, we would golf together, laugh together, train together and most importantly he provided guidance and security in a professional environment. The training was demanding and intense. It was a tremendous challenge each and everyday to train and compete with both the level of play and physical standard of the much older and experienced players. But it was so rewarding.

The team played in Clarke Stadium, which would eventually play a massive role in my coaching career with the Women's National Team Program. Fast forward to 2002 for the FIFA U19 Youth World Championships, as this is where we trained when we were based in Edmonton and played games at Commenwealth Stadium. Back to the Brickmen. I still remember the bright yellow or gold umbro shorts and training gear that we used to wear. Funny thing, I have always kept a lot of the training gear from my travels, however, since this was now 30 years ago I am afraid that I do not have anything from the Brickmen days. During the season, there was a tornado which ran through the city, destroying anything and everything that it came into contact with. I do remember the day Tony and I were witting and watching tv when all of a sudden in the middle of the day a storm rolled in. It became very dark outside and then started to hail. As we were keeping an eye on the tv and the change in the weather we noticed the size of the hail increasing and strong winds. So we turned on the radio. It was a full-blown tornando! There were people on the radio screaming as they explained the damage that had been done to their homes and community. It was scary. I have never seen so much rain fall in such a short period of time nor hail fall from the sky the size of golf balls.

The summer with the Edmonton Brickmen would turn out to be an apprenticeship, one which introduced me to the pro game, experienced players and provide the idea of travelling down to the US when I graduated in pursuit of a scholarship at an American College. Times were changing and I was soaking it all up. I remember coming home from the experience at the end of the summer and going to school at Shoreline Junior High. I felt like I had grown very fast and became a part of a very different world my friends that I would be playing school soccer with had known. I started to train and play with men. I started to dream bigger. I stopped playing other sports to concentrate more on soccer. It was an amazing experience to spend the summer training and competing at the highest level and I was super-motivated to carry on. The training. The games. The culture, The experience moved me, I wanted more and would do everything I could to continue forward with a professional soccer career.

My next opportunity to play in the Canadian Soccer League would come in 1998-1999 when the Victoria Vistas became a part of the league. I was selected to the team along with Grant Darley, who was a lifelong friend, mentor and one of the instrumental goalkeeper trainers in my youth. We competed for the starting spot each and every week. It was great playing at home, back at Royal Athletic Park where I spent much of my youth watching my father play, chasing balls and eating hot dogs! There were many great experiences in the two years the team was in the league, most enjoyable was seeing my family in the stands enjoying the games. It was also this summer that I would be selected to play for Canada in the Francophone Games. This would be the first time I met Craig Forest.

The Francophone Games were held in Morocco, Africa and it was the experience of a lifetime. The opening ceremonies made a lasting impression on me, however, so did the fact that my luggage was lost and would not appear for several days. It was a gong show trying to find out if and when my luggage was going to arrive because the airport luggage terminal was in constant chaos. For the first few days I wore the clothing supplied by the Canadian Contingent morning, day and night. Plus I was able to access as much of the team training gear as required, however, I missed having my toothbrush. My deodorant. My own clothes. Maybe a book to read. Who knows back then, maybe my walkman and taper were stowed in my lost luggage. All the comforts of home were absent and I was a long, long way from anything familiar. We stayed at a compound outside of the capital, it was an old school with dorms, a pool and cafeteria. There were guards rimming the perimeter of the area with machine guns. We were well protected. The food in the dining hall was difficult. We all had diarrhea. It was a combination of bad water, high fat content in all dairy products with little or no refrigeration and a massive cultural shift when it came to the food that was prepared and presented. We came to avoid anything that was washed in water. Most fruit and veggies. we came to avoid all items such as yogurt and milk, as they were rarely refrigerated and it was hot. We were in the middle of a desert! In fact, there is a photo taken in which I have my arm over the shoulder of one of the armed guard and for the one and only time in my life you can see my ribs.

We all lost a lot of weight. It was a combination of diet and poor sanitary conditions. There was no air conditioning and we used turkish toilets. For fun, google a photo of a turkish toilet and imagine yourself running back and forth from your bed to the bathroom at all hours. Tearing off your adidas polyester and hoping to find the target. Enough said. The opening ceremonies were fabulous. For hours we were stationed in an arena with many other countries and athletes awaiting our turn to enter the national stadium. The African countries performed all kinds of dances, songs and chanting while we soaked it all in. The entrance to the stadium which held 60,000 was amazing. I remember seeing soccer players from African countries wearing soccer boots as they circumnavigated the stadium with their contingent. It was a moment I will not forget.

The markets in Morocco were frightening and I loved it. The smells and the poverty were quite challenging. However, the people were friendly and the crafts were remarkable. I could spend days walking around these markets enjoying the sights and smell now, but back then it was an adjustment, I remember children following us, asking for money and trying to sell plastic bags to carry our stuff.
The soccer experience was phenomenal. I remember training in 40 degree heat with long sleeved jerseys and pants because the fields we were playing on were not grass- they were very hard and unforgiving. Can you imagine training in that heat, with all those clothes and coming off the pitch to find warm-water? It was hilarious, all you wanted was a bucket of cold water to throw over your head, and of course, due to a lack of refrigeration there we were consuming warm water in plastic bottles. The event was spectacular. The Canadian team was remarkabley successful. We won the gold medal with a 4-2 victory over the host nation. I was lucky enough to play in the 1/2 final in front of 45,000 fans. It was a moment I will never, ever forget. The team was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame a few years ago.

Following the collapse of the Victoria Vistas I was drafted by the Nova Scotia Clippers in 1990-1991 as the starting goalkeeper. "Shel Shocks the 86ers!" was the headline after the first game. We were a first year team with a lot of young players and we managed to gain a draw against the defending champions, the Vancouver 86ers in the opening game. This would turn out to be a remarkable season, One in which I would meet Lewis Page and play with Kevin Wasden. It was also the year I fell in love with bandanas (used as headbands) and rainbow colored goalkeeper jerseys. Perhaps this was also the time I inked my first personal services contract with Umbro to receive free gear, although it had been a few years since I had paid for soccer stuff. The season in Nova Scotia was awesome. We were a tight nit group and we had a lot of fun. I also started running goalkeeper camps while visiting communities in the area, this would be the first time I would come in contact with the PEI Soccer Association thanks to Andy Cameron. Lewis Page would eventually take over for Andy and I have visited PEI many times through the years. The Maritimes was a lovely experience, awakening to see how friendly and genuine the people were. The team only lasted one season, we played out of Beasely Park. It was  astadium with a track around it, the nearest lights were for the baseball park beside where we played. In fact, we had a game called during the season because there was not enough daylight. However, the recreational youth baseball game beside us carried on as they had lights.

After the successful season with the Nova Scotia Clippers and upon my return to the west-coast I was anxious to find more competition and wound up at an open trial for the Tacoma Stars in the MSL. This was going to be a change, indoor soccer! Both myself and Kevin Wasden packed our bags and made our way down the I-5 to try out with the Tacoma Stars. It was a very successful campaign for myself, as I made the team and spent the year playing professional indoor soccer. Kevin and I became close friends in a short period of time, we first made contact playing for the Victoria Vistas. In fact, following the 1989 season with the Vistas Kevin and I made our way overseas for european trials. I started in Colchester, England, where I wintessed first hand the passion and desire for the game. The team was playing in the second division at the time, a mix of young hopefuls and older players towards the end of their careers. I recall watching a few games and thinking "Am i ready for this?" The style was very physical and the challenges on the goalkeeper very aggressive. I was 18 years old and thinking for the first time that this might be a little above me. Anyways, the time in Colchester was rewarding, it was an introduction into a passionate and intense environment. I would then make my way to Bournemouth, Scotland to meet up with Kevin and train with the first team. It was a lot different than Colchester. The club hosted us very well on and off the field. We were able to board at a home familiar to the players in the youth team system and train with the reserve team. Each morning the club bus would pick us up in front of our lodging and take us to training. It was a really fun and exciting time. We made good friends and worked hard, very hard. I remember a training session for the goalkeepers, it was one of the wettest and muddiest sessions ever! We trained for what felt like hours, soaking wet and covered in mud. We did take a break part way through to prepare a cup of tea in the clubhouse at the field, however, we warmed up and went back out for more. At the end of the session I remember crawling back to the stadium and trying to get cleaned up in the changeroom. There was a choice of cold, black, dirty water in the form of a tile tub suited for 20 or a single stream of water, cold water, acting as some form of shower. This was a character builder! We had a great time in Bournemouth and grew to love our time there. I still had one more stop before returning to Canada and that would be my first trip to Denmark.

I was able to stay with close family friends in a Munkebo, Denmark which was very close to Odense. I was able to arrange a trial with B.1909 who was coached by Richard Mueller Nielsen, who would later go on to coach the Danish National Team when they won the European Championships in 1988. This was a dream come true, to be playing in a professional environment in my fathers homeland. The combination of events training in England, Scotland and Denmark at the age of 18 years was inspiring. I had played the game at a fairly high level in North America and found myself well below the standards of my European counterparts. This would be a motivating factor in returning back home to work harder to create further training and playing opportunities.

Sadly, my good friend Kevin Wasden was tragically taken away from us at a very early age. I still remember the day after a game playing for the Nova Scotia Clippers, the entire team was circled around the tele in a pub, arm and arm rewatching the game and enjoying the halftime show with Graham Legget and Vic Rauder. They were going to do a story on Kevin and where he grew up. They started the story with a picture of Canada, and zoomed in on BC, then Vancouver Island and then this tiny little remote First Nations Community called Alert Bay. I never had the chance to visit Alert Bay with Kevin, however, the first time I did manage to get there was for his funeral. I was dumbfounded at the experience. My relationship with the community has and always will be one of the most amazing experiences I will carry with me. From this initial visit on a very sad occassion we established the He'et tla las Memorial Soccer Camp in memory of Kevin. His brother William created an awesome logo that we placed on the camp t-shirts and I would see hundreds of kids through the years. So many memories, the warmest of which are how they always made me, my family and my friends feel so welcome. It was an absolute pleasure to visit Kincomb Inlet and conduct a soccer camp for the children in this remote village. In fact, I have now extended the opportunity to work with Inuit children on the exact opposite side of the country, having visited the remote community of Iqualuit, in Nunavit on 1/2 dozen occasions to work with the children.

Back to the CSL, and the demise of the Nova Scotia Clippers after one season. The offseason saw me enjoy a year in the MSL playing for the Tacoma Stars and then get drafted by the London Lasers of the Canadian Soccer League for the 1991 season. The team was owned by Bob Facker, who was a construction company owner and thought that by having a professional soccer team in the community it would help him gain access to a contract buidling a new recreational facility in the town. Well, we landed, had a team meeting, tried to run a few training sessions and flew back home. The team folded in less than a week. I remember the team meeting in which the owner wanted the players not dressing to sell then uniforms out of the back of his truck at the stadium and he simply could not believe that we would require a physio and medical supplies. This was when the CSL was near it's demise. It was not a pleasant experience. The summer holiday was unexpected, until I received a call to finish the season with the North York Rockets, as their starting goalkeeper was injured and out for the remainder of the season. Out of something bad comes something good.

Playing for the North York Rockets was a lot of fun. They were a tight team. Tomas Razinski was 17 years old and playing for the team. He would go on to have an extensive playing career in Europe. Jack Coppetti and I became lifelong friends, in fact, we still keep in touch to this day. The owner of the team, Tony Fontana always had a thermos full of espresso post game and the club served the best italian sandwiches in the clubhouse after everygame. It was a lot of fun completing the season with a lot of player's I had played against for years. Nick Dasovic was also playing for the team. The last time we played together was the BC Provincial Team in our youth. He would go on to have a successful playing career in Europe as well as coach in the Canadian National Teams Program and MLS. We still see each other on occassion and chat on the phone occassionally, It is amazing how the web weaves itself together.

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step!"

I have and will always admire this phrase, as the initial contract with the Edmonton Brickmen in 1986 lead me down a path full of memories, experiences, friends, ups and downs- all thanks to the beautiful game!

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