By Don Fennell
It was the height of summer 1971 and Neil Ellett and his teammates on the Canadian men’s national soccer team were in the midst of competing in the Pan-American Games in Cali, Colombia.
The lads sported a 2-2 record when they entered the park Aug. 8 for their first playoff game, ironically against the host side to which they had dropped a 2-1 decision six days earlier.
As the red- and-white-clad Canucks walked through the tunnel onto the pitch ringed by fences and protected by soldiers, they were awed by a raucous full house of 55,000 fans, naturally most cheering for the boys wearing the yellow jerseys trimmed in blue. But the underdog Canadians, who would play eight games in 12 days, were undaunted. They stuck to their game plan, hoping to control the pace and the ball. It worked as they emerged with a 3-2 victory and went on to finish fifth in the tournament.
“We always wondered as Canadians if we were going to be competitive and we held our own with everybody,” said Ellett, who considers that game to be the single-greatest of his decorated career.
That includes scoring the first-ever goal in the history of the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Ellett was lined up in his usual defender position May 4, 1974 when the Whitecaps made their North American Soccer League debut at Empire Stadium. But at one point during the match he moved up to intercept a clearing header and found himself with an unexpected scoring opportunity from 30 yards out.
“OK try to keep your head down, get a shot and try to miss the keeper,” he told himself.
To his delight the ball sailed toward the far corner of the net.
“How do you like that?” he said.
Ellett, a 65-year-old Richmond resident, is being honoured this weekend with induction into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in Toronto. It’s a tribute the former Canadian international and present referee-assessor is notably humbled by.
“Sports is a great life-learner,” he said. “I’ve developed so many friendships and being associated with a so-called elite group of athletes is just normal to me. Obviously this honour means you must have done something good in your career but you don’t think about that when you’re playing. You just bust your tail to stay.”
Ellett has done more than just a few good things. He’s been involved in just about every aspect of soccer, from player to coach to official. And he’s been a positive inspiration and widely respected in all positions.
Soccer and Ellett seemed to mesh from the outset. He enjoyed kicking the ball around the backyard with his dad Joe (an accomplished player in the late 1930s with the Saint Saviours) from whom he learned the basics of the game. But his debut in organized youth soccer, at the age of nine, wasn’t exactly auspicious. His Kiwanis team lost its first game 10-0 and went on to finish the season winless.
He was told things would soon get better. They did. By 1960 he was part of a provincial champion and selected a tournament all-star with the Optimist Aces. He repeated the feat in 1962.
Later that same year he graduated to the Pacific Coast Soccer League and played for various teams through 1974, when he joined the Whitecaps.
The Pacific Coast league was the crème de la crème of soccer before the NASL came to town. Many of the best Ellett played with and against formed the nucleus of the first Whitecaps’ team, including Les Wilson and Bobby Lenarduzzi, who were among the first to pull up stakes as youth and try out for teams in Europe. Now, he said, locals routinely are invited to youth camps put on by the European clubs.
“We were just out in the colonial frontier I guess, “he said. “Now they scout the world.”
Ellett, who scored the only goal of the game when Canada beat Mexico in Vancouver in Olympic qualifying in 1971, was 30 when he signed with the Whitecaps. It was a significant step up from playing in the Pacific Coast league, but still not the full-time gig it is today. He had a full-time job with the City of Vancouver which he would leave every night to go and practice with the Caps.
“We weren’t exactly making any money to speak of,” he said, noting the average salary was about $3,500 for the season. “Of course we travelled first class and stayed at first-class hotels.”
But by then Ellett’s knees were beginning to bother him. He completed two seasons and then retired, but determined to remain active in the game he loved. He became a full-time referee, a role he began dabbling at in 1972.
Recurring knee problems again forced him to reevaluate and in 1980 he gave up officiating in the NASL to become the league’s assessor of officials, a role he retained until the league folded in 1984.
Ellett also coached soccer. In fact he coached his youngest daughter Kathy with the Vancouver Meralomas, a team she continues to suit up for.
“I never pushed the girls to play,” he said. “But if they wanted to go kick a ball around I certainly supported them.”
Ellett, a lifetime member of B.C. Soccer, still officiates senior women’s soccer and assesses referees at the national level. And he’s looking forward to the Whitecaps joining Major League Soccer next season.
“In the last couple of years of the NASL we were getting 18,000 or 20,000 fans out to games and hopefully we’ll get even more when the MLS gets here,” he said.