If there was to be a poster child for men's soccer in Northern Ontario, Brian Ashton could easily have been that guy.
While the GTA and southern Ontario corridor have produced many a dazzling ball-handler, play-making wizards blessed with a deft scoring touch, few in the sport have better portrayed the heart and character of elite athletes in the north than Ashton, a rugged midfielder who would just as soon have gone through an opponent than around him.
That fearless style and a work ethic that few could match would ultimately lead to national notoriety, and a seven year professional career with the Toronto Lynx. By all accounts, the older of two boys in the family is the only soccer talent from north of Parry Sound to have ever cracked a national male soccer team, doing so with the U17 (1991), U20 (1992) and U23 (1994) squads.
Earlier this week, Ashton attended a media gathering confirming that he will join local soccer legends Gino Cacciotti, Carmen Santoro, Ferruccio Deni and Greg Zorbas, among others, as members of the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame.
Though he would start his career at a very tender age, filling up the net as many a young talent will do, there were already early signs of the personality traits that would eventually separate Ashton from the pack. I think I always had a willingness to compete, he said. I wanted to get to the ball first, I wanted to score the goal, I was always a competitor.
With coach Claudio Rossi guiding he and teammates Ivo Beljo and Chris Binks through the early years, Ashton would first garner provincial level attention at the age of 11 or 12. The first time I was identified was at an indoor tournament in Sault Ste Marie, in a hockey rink in the summer, he recalled.
They picked me, Adrian Beljo we were thick as thieves at the time and Michael Lee. I've always said that Adrian was the talented one, Michael was the quick one, and I was the strong one. If you could have put us together, you had something special.
Truth be told, Ashton had something special, all on his own. With endless support from his parents (Ashton maintains that his father, Ron, a miner for years in Creighton, had the talent to play professionally in his native England), the young prodigy developed, without much sense of an end goal, early on.
I can't ever remember having specific aspirations, Ashton confessed. I played the game and never thought about playing at a provincial level, never thought once about playing for Canada. I just went out and played.
By his early teens, the St Charles College student was making a name for himself down south, showcasing a style of play that differed nicely from most of his teammates. I wasn't an attacking player when I played for Ontario, I was a midfield player, Ashton reminisced. My job, even then, was to run people over.
Hard work sticks out sometimes over skill. I wasn't, by any means, the most skillful player. I relied a lot on my fitness and strength. But with all of the opportunities, you learned to play at that level. In fact, in emphasizing the character of his game, Ashton might sometimes sell himself short on the skill aspect. The reality is that you cannot play at this level without those core ball skills.
Stops in Mississauga and Oakville would eventually give way to a handful of treks to the U.K., as the young Canadian became part of the YTS (Youth Training Scheme) with Notts County, later hitting the field with the reserve squad for Sheffield United.
The soccer there was more physical, but that was my game, noted Ashton. I would give it here and not get it back. There, I would give it and get it back. I loved it. When I was playing soccer (in England), I never thought of home. But it was the down times when I couldn't handle it.
By his early twenties, the current owner of the Northern Soccer Academy had made his way to Toronto, kicking off a career in 1998 with the Lynx that would work out exceptionally well for both player and team. I finally had a home, said Ashton. I went from team to team, from Mississauga to Oakville to England and never really settled anywhere.
I felt for the first time that this was my team. Often described as one of the most popular players of all-time with the Lynx, Ashton was a four time winner of the Fan Favourite Award. By the time he retired from the game in 2004, he would hold the club mark for games played (134) and minutes played (10760), having served as captain of the team, as well.
Though he had been on the Canada Soccer radar for some time, the Sudbury native never quite ascended to getting his cap, the term used for making an actual on-field appearance with the national soccer team. I got called up in 1994, Holland was visiting the U.S., and Canada was playing them at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, said Ashton.
I warmed up on the field and never got in. To be honest, I was more star-struck than anything. Before the game, I was asking people if they would take a picture with me. These are the memories that remain for the consummate soccer man, who stepped away from the field, as a player, to take on a full-time position as a regional coach with the Ontario Soccer Association.
I still keep in touch with some of the guys, said Ashton. We don't talk about the soccer. We talk about the bus rides, we talk about what happened at the hotel. And if the talk somehow migrates over to soccer, former teammates will recall Ashton as the fiercest of competitors. Just the type of athlete that would make Northern Ontarians proud.