The landscape of the Sudbury competitive soccer scene is shifting with each and every turn of the calendar year. But with the start of the outdoor season now only four to six weeks away, on a local level, it still seems a little strange to envision thousands of young players taking to the pitch, not one of whom will be donning the uniform of the Sudbury Canadians.
By the time I first started reporting on the local soccer teams in the summer of 2004, the Canadians were already a well-established organization. In fact, the genesis of the all-girls grouping burgeoned roughly a decade earlier.
“In 1995, I was coaching a Sudburnia girls team, and they were pretty good, and there was no competitive girls team in Sudbury,” recalled the man behind the club, Frank Malvaso. “We asked a couple of clubs if they wanted to sponsor a team, and nobody put up their hand, so we basically decided to create our own club.”
With names like Megan Schutt, Katie Johnston and Tessa Bonhomme dotting those early rosters, the reputation of the Canadians was growing as the new millennium welcomed wave after wave of new talent. The question of exactly how the club garnered its moniker had never really come to mind.
“One of the things somebody came up with is that there were a lot of ethnic soccer teams locally,” said Malvaso. “Somebody said it would be nice to call these girls what they are, “Canadians”. That’s how the name came about.”
The first collection of Sudbury Canadians was not without question marks, including whether or not the fledgling squad could hold their own once they would leave the comfort of the city boundaries.
“We actually played some exhibition games down south, just to try it out,” explained Malvaso. “The girls did really well. We had a lot of parents whose kids were really into sports, a lot of parents that were really behind their kids.”
Though the progression of the Canadians through a period that would ultimately span twenty years or so might have seemed like a neatly planned journey, truth is it was anything but. “To be perfectly honest, as parents, we didn’t sit down with a long-term plan,” said Malvaso with a laugh.
“When we started playing down south, started winning tournaments, we were suddenly getting people knocking on our door. The girls kind of created their own success. We were just focused on playing.”
Growth, within the club, was an obvious by-product. “We just didn’t think that there were that many parents in Sudburnia, Walden, Valley East and all that, who wanted their kids to play competitive soccer,” stated Malvaso.
By year three, a trio of teams would be proudly emblazoned with the Canadians logo. It didn’t hurt that the talent that was already in-house was drawing post-secondary attention on both sides of the border.
“A lot of it was driven by really good media coverage,” acknowledged Malvaso, an organizer who has always been blessed with a keen understanding of exactly how to reach out to the local media outlets, as well as knowing what kind of information was needed at their end.
“To be honest, I knew nothing about scholarships,” he said. “I had no clue whatsoever. But we learned, from tournaments, that the high school years were also a window to university soccer. We started switching to “Showcase” tournaments, and the momentum grew.”
A father of four children, including three girls, Malvaso initially jumped into the coaching fray, motivated by the same factors that draw most parents to the role. If his knowledge of soccer was to expand, it would occur somewhat organically.
“I took all of the OSA (Ontario Soccer Association) clinics and what-not, but going on the road and playing some of the best teams in Ontario, I think I learned more from that,” he said. “You really are a product of what you’ve seen.”
“I would make a point of talking to opposing coaches. Sometimes, I would catch them off-guard – they really don’t expect the opposing coach to ask them for advice. But the co-operation and the information I got was incredible.”
The expansion of the Sudbury Canadians would reach a pinnacle in the early 2000’s, as Malvaso and company entered the team in the Women’s Soccer League (WSL), a North American based loop that featured much of the top female soccer talent from both Canada and the U.S.A.
The Canadians struggled mightily to remain competitive, leaving the WSL after just a handful of summer seasons of competition. Malvaso, however, remains adamant the effort was not in vain. “Not only do I not regret it, I am glad that we tried it,” he said.
“It really was one of the best experiences we ever had, to watch our girls against some of the best players in North America. We didn’t win, but they did get to play.” Scaling down the vision, the Canadians returned to their roots, but encountered, from time to time, the same hurdles that plague a number of elite sports groups in Sudbury.
“One of the challenges that we have up here is that the pool (of talent) isn’t that large,” Malvaso acknowledged. “When someone leaves, finding a substitute is not always that easy. The challenge for us was to get players who were maybe not elite playing the best that they could.”
By the time his final super-talented core was moving on, a group that included the troika of Cloe Lacasse, Karolyn Blain and Serena San Cartier, Malvaso had started to shift his focus to working with the provincial indigenous sector, coaching Team Ontario at the North American Indigenous Games in Regina.
“One of the reasons I thought it was a good idea for our club to wind down was that I could afford to throw my efforts into helping them (NAIG athletes).” He would leave behind a bevy of wonderful memories, including a U16 Robbie Championship victory in front of a Toronto crowd of more than 300 people.
But in the end, like most coaches, Malvaso’s final word on the subject matter that is the Sudbury Canadians would come full circle, right back to the athletes that caused the club to be created in the first place. “I really appreciate the fact that all of the players stood up and did the very best that they could. It was an incredible experience.”