North Vancouver native Chris Bennett is going into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame this fall, recognition for a long and successful career as a player, coach, and organizer across Canada and around the world.
Bennett is being honoured in the builder category, although if he had his druthers he'd also be going in as a player. Either way, you can add on that he's also become a Hall of Fame storyteller as well.
Now a retired firefighter living in Coquitlam and working as the technical director for North Coquitlam United Soccer Club, Bennett stopped by the North Shore News office last week and proceeded to guide a storytelling tour through 50 years of a soccer life full of great games, teams, and, of course, characters.
The journey started in London, England, where, strangely enough, Bennett did not play soccer. When Bennett was five his father left for Canada, flying 34 hours to make it all the way to the West Coast.
"They got to Winnipeg to refuel and his buddy says, let's get off now, I'm fed up with this flight.'" Bennett recalls. "My dad convinced him to stay on the plane and go to Vancouver. Best move he ever made."
Chris and the rest of the family soon followed and, as the family slowly settled in, the youngest of the crew found a home on the soccer field. Bennett remembers trying out for one of the teams run by the Burdett Construction Company - "to play for Burdett's was the place to be," he says - and going on to score 52 goals in his first season.
"I fell in love with the game, totally, completely, utterly," he says. His dad, meanwhile, helped him out by making him a weight set - they couldn't afford to buy one so he used the tools at the shipyard.
"He got a burning torch and cut out plates of steel. Then he got a bar and put the plates onto the bar and made sleeves and all that sort of thing."
By his teens Bennett was a local star and, as a 15-yearold, made his debut with North Shore United, a semipro adult team in the Pacific Coast League. Famous North Vancouver tailor Paul Minichiello, who died Aug. 1 of this year, helped welcome him to the team.
"Paul was a great guy," Bennett says. "My signing fee to play for North Shore, Paul made me a custom leather jacket right down to my calves. That was one-ofa-kind."
Bennett showed well in those games and his goal-scoring talent earned him a spot at England's famous Chelsea FC where he worked with the reserve team, standing out not for his flashy skills - the team was full of elite internationals - but because of his fitness.
"I was 165 pounds of tungsten carbide back in those days," he says. "I was very fit."
The Premier League dream, however, didn't come true and Bennett returned to Canada and eventually found himself on Team B.C. at the 1973 Canada Summer Games where he was back facing players his own age rather than adults.
"It was like taking candy from a baby," he says.
Bennett scored the winning goal in the tournament's quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals, the last one giving B.C. the gold in front of a raucous home crowd at Swangard Stadium. He remembers it vividly.
"The ball popped loose and I jumped on it in a heartbeat. The goalie came out to block it and I hit it with my left and it went straight through his legs. Nutmegged him."
That performance earned him a spot on a brand new pro team called the Vancouver Whitecaps, beginning play in the North American Soccer League in 1974. The team brought in a few international stars but for the most part calling it "professional" was a bit of a stretch, says Bennett.
"The rest of us were all loose ends, firefighters, school teachers, city workers," he says. "The money we were making was very small.. .. There wasn't a lot of pressure on us as soccer players. It's not like it is today with the media."
Bennett played half a season before asking for a chance to train with England's Arsenal. He never played again for the Whitecaps, instead heading down south a few miles to sign with Seattle.
"I left (the Whitecaps) simply because of money - I was broke," he says, adding that Seattle was offering something that was at least livable. "It was enough money for a single guy so we could afford to take a girl out, party, wear nice clothes and put gas in the car. We didn't really have to worry about too much else in life."
Bennett joined a Seattle team that featured real stars, like England's Geoff Hurst, still the only man to ever score a hat trick in a World Cup final game.
"I really felt that I had arrived in life," says Bennett, adding that his next-door neighbour was another English teammate named Harry Redknapp, now a famous Premier League manager.
"I had no idea he would turn out to be the Harry Redknapp who he is today," says Bennett before launching into stories, Redknapp's cockney accent included, such as the episode with the coho salmon that Bennett brought home from a fishing trip and tried to give to Harry. ("Nah, mate, I'm not puttin' me finger in that. Look at the teeth on that.") Pro stops in Memphis and Cleveland followed, as well as stints on the Canadian Olympic team and national team, before Bennett's playing career was cut short by injuries.
Addicted to the sport, Bennett says he had no problem jumping off the field and into the coach's box.
"I wanted to learn, I wanted to improve, I wanted to get better. For me to read and study and listen and go on courses was what I wanted to do. It wasn't hard work for me."
He quickly moved up through local, provincial and national programs and, in 1996, scored an epic victory as coach of the national U20 team, beating Mexico in Mexico to win the CONCACAF U20 title. It's a trip he won't ever forget.
"It's not like going into Austria or something like that," he says. "You're going into a Third World environment and they will do anything, anything, to win. Anything. When they didn't win the gold it was like somebody had killed their first born. They were so upset. We were hiding under the seats in the bus."
The next year he took that team - which included familiar names like Dwayne De Rosario and Paul Stalteri as well as Steve Kindel, who's now the technical director of North Van FC - to the FIFA U20 World Cup in Malaysia. The Canadians advanced out of the group stages, narrowly losing 2-1 against the eventual champions from Argentina, before losing to Spain in the playoffs.
The successes kept coming for Bennett, including in 2004 when he guided the Vancouver Whitecaps women to a North American championship. That team - including players like Erin McLeod, Martina Franko, Andrea Neil, Brittany Timko and a young Kara Lang - earned a spot in the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Now Bennett has bumped his Hall of Fame credentials up a notch, going national. A ceremony at the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame is scheduled for November.
"I'm very proud," says Bennett, still radiating the passion for soccer that he discovered while scoring all those goals for Fen Burdett's team some 50 years ago.
"Before you start out in anything you've got to love what you're doing," he says. "First I was a soccer player, a dedicated player. The only reason I went into coaching was because I couldn't play anymore. If I could still play, I wouldn't be coaching. If I could still play I wouldn't be sitting with you here right now."
The sport has engulfed his life, he says, again recalling those days back in North Vancouver.
"If you didn't have a car you walked to Kinsman Stadium, and then you jumped that goddamn fence and you're inside playing," he says. "I wanted to become the best player in the world. I never made it, but that's your goal."
He may not be the best in the world, but he'll always be a Hall of Famer.