Like father, like son: Didar and Justyn Sandhu

Didar Justyn

Didar Sandhu was a high level volleyball player.

Middle blocker, middle hitter.

He played soccer as a young child, mostly in house league, but volleyball was the sport where he really excelled early on, playing on the BC provincial team.

Goalkeeper wasn’t even his position in soccer.

It’s funny how life goes sometimes though.

Who knew in those younger years that he would become a top level keeper, nearing a career in England, playing for Vancouver 86ers, and even representing Canada at the Pan Am Games.

And who knew that he would have a son who would follow in his footsteps, making big saves at Swangard Stadium.

The early days

Didar grew up as an East Van boy, like many other well-known names in the soccer community.

He would go to Punjabi school in the evenings at the Ross Street temple, the home of the Khalsa Diwan Society of Vancouver.

“I used to be a part of the whole Vaisakhi parade, holding the flag up, from six to 10 years old.”

On the sports side, from the age of five he played at Kensington Community Centre Soccer Club at 33rd and Knight.

At the age of 12, he moved up quickly and made the Van City Metro team.

As a right midfielder.

He’d never played goalkeeper before.

But then at the age of 15, the goalkeeper on his team got injured. The coach, who played goalkeeper himself, turned to Didar.

“He asked me with my background in volleyball. I said sure, let’s give it a shot.”

Didar never looked back. He left volleyball behind and started training full-time as a goalkeeper.

“It just blossomed. After six months to a year the provincial team came around, and then a couple of years later the Canadian U-18 national team, and then Canadian U-20 national team. It happened so quickly that I never really thought about it too much.”

Didar 3

Didar trained four days per week at the national training centre at SFU, and another three days with his club team.

A couple years later he had a trial with Coventry City in England under head coach Phil Neal.

“I trained with two goalkeepers there who were very well known. Magnus Hedman was the starting goalkeeper for Sweden, and Chris Kirkland who ended up playing for Wigan. Steve Ogrizovic was their senior keeper, and he was retiring that year.”

He stayed for six months, and he was offered a contract, but unfortunately he wasn’t granted a work permit.

Coming home to the 86ers

When he returned to Vancouver, Bob Lenarduzzi reached out about playing for Vancouver 86ers.

“I went from a kid from East Van to playing for the 86ers. I used to take the bus to Swangard from Knight and Kingsway and watch guys like Domenic Mobilio, John Catliff, and Sven Habermann. I ended up becoming good friends with Mobilio and guys like Ivor Evans. I went from idolizing them to chatting with them on a daily basis, so it was surreal.”

Former teammate Chris Franks remembers Didar as one of the fittest players on the team, regularly outrunning the entire Canada U-20 squad during laps while wearing running shoes.

“That was a big thing for me. I remember my dad thinking of goalkeepers as being lazy, not running, so I wanted to prove to everyone that I was fit.”

Didar 2

After initially sitting behind Paul Dolan and Paul Shepherd, Didar eventually got his time to shine. He still sits sixth all-time in saves for the club.

Playing with the 86ers in the 90s, and building back up rivalries with clubs like Seattle and Portland in what became the USL, made for special nights at Swangard Stadium.

“I remember those summer nights at Swangard, the trees and the backdrop, the smell of the hot dogs, having family and friends there. But I was really focused on the game.”

Didar 1

The next chapter, fatherhood

At the turn of the century, Didar had a new adventure.

“We found out that we were having a baby, and me and his mom decided that soccer might have to take a step back, to focus more on work. I spoke with Bobby and Dale Mitchell, and I decided to retire. I think it was the right decision and it allowed me to be around him a lot when he was born.”

Justyn was born in December of 2001, and he immediately loved the ball at his feet.

“He got into soccer at an early age. He wasn’t even walking and he was kicking the ball.”

Like his dad, Justyn was a natural athlete.

“He was doing hockey and soccer. In hockey, coaches would say to me that I was making a mistake by taking him out and focusing on soccer. He was a physical hockey player, and coaches said that he would rock it. I gave him a choice at age 11 or 12, and soccer was just something he gravitated to.”

“That’s when we started taking it seriously,” remembers Justyn.

Didar would soon be in touch with a former teammate, ‘Caps third all-time leading scorer Jason Jordan who was now technical director at Fusion Soccer Club.

“He asked me is Justyn coming to play out or is he coming as a goalie. I said he can do both, but I think goalkeeper is going to be his thing.”

Justyn excelled, and within a short period Whitecaps FC MLS Academy goalkeeper coach Raegyn Hall took notice and invited him to the ‘Caps academy.

“It was long days going to school, and then academy training. But it was a great experience to be in a pro environment for 10 years of my life.”

Justyn whitecaps

With Didar having retired from playing pro before Justyn was born, it’s taken time for Justyn to learn about his career.

“It’s always been a gradual learning experience, not even from him, but everyone else would always tell me about his career, what he’s done and accomplished. Over time you start to understand the perspective of what it takes to get there.”

Naturally, growing up there were discussions, and even arguments about playing the game.

“Raegyn would say, you know you should listen to your dad,” tells Didar. “He knows what he’s talking about.”

But as Justyn has matured, he’s learned to embrace his dad’s advice.

“Not so long ago, things just clicked.”

Like father, like son

After moving through the ‘Caps MLS Academy, Justyn played at St. Bonaventure in the NCAA.

Eventually though, he decided to make the move back home to Simon Fraser University.

“I thought it was best for me, that if I wanted to try to go pro the best thing for me was to come play at home.”

In-between college, Justyn has played for TSS Rovers in the new League1 BC.


And their home venue? Swangard Stadium.

Seeing his son play on the same pitch has brought a special feeling of pride to both father and son.

“There’s a picture of me at Swangard with the trees in the background,” tells Didar. “I have the same picture of him there with the trees in the background. I still have that picture on my phone.”

Justyn Didar

At the end of the first League1 BC season, they found themselves in the championship, with a chance to qualify as the first League1 BC team ever in the Canadian Championship.

The mentality was clear.

“We have to win this game,” remembers Justyn. “We have to play in CanChamp.”

That they did, with Justyn playing the hero in a shootout.

One year later, they hosted Canadian Premier League (CPL) side Valour FC, once again at Swangard Stadium.

“There was a real sense of pride playing at Swangard.”

They made history, becoming the first ever amateur team to defeat a pro team in the Canadian Championship.

“That was the most nervous I’ve ever been going into a single game. All we would talk about for weeks was imagine winning. Then to go from imagine doing it, to actually doing it, it was a special night.”

Representing the community

As we approach the annual Vaisakhi celebration, Didar and Justyn reflected on their impact as athletes in the South Asian community.

“Growing up I didn’t think too much about it,” said Didar. “I would hear it from other people. I just felt normal. Growing up in East Vancouver, I had friends from all different nationalities, from the Italians, to the Portuguese, to the Croatians. I didn’t think of myself as anything special. But after my playing career I heard about it more. The 86ers were a lot of local guys brought together. But as a community, I think it was pretty special for the people around me for one of their boys to be playing at a high level. For me I was just happy to play soccer, but I was also happy to give them something as well.”

For Justyn, he’s taken great pride in seeing other young players like himself succeed.

“You always want to see guys like Jeevan Badwal represent the community. You can see all the pride and passion that Punjabi people, Indian people, and South Asian people have. Just look at the Nations Cup every year with thousands of people cheering them on.”

And for Didar, going to the parade still brings a happy feeling for himself, and his family.

“Everyone is having a good time and enjoying the food. It’s just beautiful seeing the community out.”

And who knows, amongst those crowds this year, there might be another young athlete who doesn’t yet know a future career in soccer awaits them.