Many have been the European immigrants that made their way to Sudbury in the fifties or sixties, establishing themselves into long and prosperous careers and, on the side, also making a name for themselves in the thriving local men’s soccer community of that era.
Others, still, would mimic much of the above, only to gain their notoriety along the sidelines, coaching Sudbury soccer teams, both young and old.
And then there’s that smaller handful of folks who found a way to make a very special imprint on the beautiful game, as it relates to the nickel basin, seldom if ever playing or coaching.
How special an imprint, you ask?
Well, as Gino Cacciotti sat in his backyard a few weeks back to celebrate his 90th birthday, he did so surrounded by no less than five former players, with others forwarding best wishes, all in support of a gentleman whose primary involvement with these athletes lies in the sponsorship of the Cleanol Hawks soccer program.
“He treated us like family,” noted Arnie Gallo, one of the three 70 year olds in attendance (along with Sergio Velcic and Carmen Doni), with Mario Anselmo (74) and Dino Cirillo (77) rounding out the motley crew. “We would spend not only the soccer season with Gino and his family – we were there all year round.”
Born just outside of Rome, Cacciotti arrived in Sudbury in 1951, just twenty years of age. His father and several uncles had already crossed the Atlantic, with his brothers and sisters following suit in the days that still required a family sponsorship in order to welcome folks to Canada from the old country.
Though he would not play once he arrived – “I was too busy working to play” – Cacciotti certainly was immersed in soccer throughout his youth. “Instead of playing hockey (in Italy), we played soccer – it doesn’t get as cold,” said the proud father of four children.
“If we didn’t have a soccer ball, we played with a tennis ball. We could even take a bunch of elastics, put a piece of cloth inside and make a ball.”
Following a short work stint in Ottawa, Cacciotti returned to Sudbury in 1955, coinciding with the arrival of his mother from Italy, and embarked on what would become a 30 year career with Inco. As for his penchant for soccer, he always had his barber, Gino Lozietti, to commiserate with. “Gino said to me, why don’t you buy the team and make all kinds of money,” said Cacciotti, with a smile.
He was already well acquainted with Carmen Santoro, the man who help moved the Italia Flyers up to the semi-professional ranks. Cacciotti was also well acquainted with the work of Ricardo de la Riva, involved heavily with the launch of youth soccer in the early sixties.
“He (Gino) wanted to sponsor a kids team,” noted Anselmo, who fondly recalls talking his now long-time friend out of the idea of calling his new team the Cleanol Cleaners. When resistance was mounted against this crew joining the junior soccer ranks, they decided the best alternative was to move up and play with the men.
“Vince Panella and I were registered with the German team (Olympia), so we asked for our releases and went to play for Gino,” added Anselmo. His younger brother, Jack, was already a teammate and friend of the likes of Gallo and Velcic.
What ensued was the making of a remarkable bond.
“There was a mixture of younger guys and the experienced guys – we bonded really well,” said Doni. “We were all good friends, but Gino made it into a family. Just the way he treated us; he was just like a father figure.”
“I was playing with the Italia Flyers junior squad,” said Cirillo, still recognized within his cohorts as the “enforcer” of the squad. “These guys were good, they were really good. And they seemed so nice, so friendly, so easy-going.”
“When I joined them, I felt really welcomed. But the best part was always after the game. Win or lose, we ended up at Gino’s house (on St Andrews Road). The sandwiches were ready for us, pasta and everything. We were well looked after.”
This was no one-man effort.
“My wife, Jeannine, would have been a perfect Italian,” said Cacciotti. “She could speak Italian, just like everybody else.” And more than most, she could dole out the famed Italian hospitality, guaranteeing that no one left hungry – no easy feat when you’re dealing with a house load of strapping young athletic men.
The four Cacciotti kids were always around, though it was daughter Teresa that seemed to develop the greatest affinity for all things soccer, helping ensure that all who stepped foot in the house felt welcomed and comfortable.
“Some of these guys got married because of the times they spent with their girlfriends at my house,” joked Cacciotti. Weddings and soccer would intermix, with the team sponsor serving as emcee, his children as ring bearers.
Listen to their stories and soak up an atmosphere that lives on decades later.
“I got involved because I knew just about everybody here,” said Velcic. “They asked me to play, but these were all skilled players, so I played defense. They were just such great, great guys – I loved being around the team.”
That feeling meant the world to Cacciotti.
Long before sport psychologists arrived on the scene, this ultra-friendly sport sponsor understood the need to create an environment of success. “If the players enjoy the team, if the players enjoy the game, they play better,” said Cacciotti. “Just like work.”
There would be pride in every single aspect of the team, with Cacciotti remaining with the Sudbury Hawks organization through until 1988, helping to found a youth tournament, sitting on the executive of the SRSA, even coaching a squad that eventually travelled to Germany.
There was so much to be proud of.
“We had the best uniforms in the league – and the cleanest ones,” laughed Cacciotti.
But rest assured that it was the people behind the uniforms, the individuals who donned the Cleanol logo, those are the friendships that survived the test of time.
And Gino Cacciotti was at the centre of it all, just as it should be.