As a teenager in Sudbury in the 1970's, there were but two things that I could recall of the late Wolf Mildenberger: one, that according to an ultra-popular ditty promoting his car dealership, Wolf was apparently a "great, great guy"; and two, that the lifelong Bayern Munich fan was instrumental in bringing the Sudbury Cyclones to life.
According to Sudbury Sports Hall of Famer John Dagostino, both statements could not be truer.
"Wolf had a passion for soccer," said Dagostino. "He used to bring German teams to Sudbury for exhibition games or would help organize trips for Sudbury teams to Germany. He did a lot for soccer."
Making a name for himself initially with Sudbury United, Mildenberger would lead the charge to have the Cyclones entered into the National Soccer League in 1976, the third and final attempt to make semi-professional soccer sustainable in the Nickel City. The Italia Flyers enjoyed a short stint from 1965 to 1967, giving it one more shot in 1971, before ceding way to the Cyclones five years later.
Initially slotted as a Second Division entry, the locals posted records of 7-10-4, 6-8-4 and 6-4-2, eventually earning a spot in the top bracket of NSL play. The team would enjoy two more summers of action before disbanding, the challenge of finding the right mix to field a competitive lineup simply too daunting in the end.
"We had some players from out of town, but they didn't stay long," said Dagostino. "Most of the players were local players." Covering an interesting range of ages and backgrounds, the northern Ontario component remained ever-thankful simply for the door being opened on that level of soccer in Sudbury.
"We had the opportunity to play some really, really good competitive teams that were basically all European based, most of which came from the Toronto area – and Buffalo, St Catharines and Detroit," recalled Bob Gonko, one of a nucleus that initially made a name for themselves in senior soccer circles as the Ukrainian Tridents.
"It was a good experience."
Born and raised in Sudbury, Gonko had garnered attention on a larger scale, named to Team Ontario and suiting up with a national squad for a few matches as well. His personal success, in part, came thanks to a somewhat innovative approach to his position as left fullback.
"The biggest area that I got awareness from was that I as not just a defender, I was an attacker as well," said Gonko. "I would overlap and participate in the offense." An avid viewer of professional and amateur soccer, Gonko had seen the approach gain traction with the Dutch side that finalled at the 1974 World Cup.
"They changed the entire strategy of soccer back then," he said. "Everybody attacked and everybody defended. Watching a lot of professional soccer, it was something that I knew that I could do. I think it eventually became a strategy with the coaching that we had. Because the guys knew that I was going to overlap, we would kind of push the field over to the right and the cross would come to the left side."
"Nobody on the defending end would anticipate a defender coming in, so it would leave me in a very good offensive position." A good enough position to allow Gonko to finish second only to Cyclones' striker George Krauss in team scoring one year.
While names such as Ted Domalewski, Felix Bazzul, Ferruccio Deni, Peter Severinac, George Courtney and others surfaced during conversations of this era, one stood out from the rest. "Bill Czerwinec was one of the best captains I played for in any sport, a real leader," recalled Walter Michelutti, likely the youngest player on the team when he cracked the roster at the age of 17.
"The older guys really helped us, they wanted you to succeed. I started playing in the senior men's league at 13. The next thing I know, a semi-pro team comes in. The first year (1976), I didn't bother to tryout. I didn't think I was good enough, it wasn't happening." Michelutti joined the Cyclones the following summer, playing right through until 1980.
For the future Laurentian Voyageur who enjoyed two trips to CIAU nationals, it was quite the eye-opening experience. "We (Cyclones) were playing against teams whose players were professionals," said Michelutti. "They didn't work, outside of soccer, and they were getting good bucks."
"We were practicing three days a week and then hopping on the bus for a couple of games on the weekend. I can remember coming back to Sudbury at four, five, six in the morning on Monday, and picking up my lunch pail because I was working at Pepsi Cola as a student."
By the time university season kicked off in mid-August, it all became a bit much. "We practiced hard during the summer and then you were at Laurentian, doing twice-a-days," said Michelutti. "It turned out that I was almost burnt out before the (OUA) season even started. I can remember a couple of times going straight from my Laurentian game to the Cyclones game."
But much like John Dagostino and Bob Gonko, Walter Michelutti remained ever grateful for his time with the Cyclones, and the man who made it all possible. "You couldn't ask for a nicer guy than Wolf," said Michelutti.
"He gave everything for soccer, he did everything for the team, he just loved it."
While this list is not all inclusive, others who were involved with the Sudbury Cyclones as either players, coaches, management, etc… included Giovanni Lugo, Angelo Battocchio, Vic Pessot, Frank Cristo, Stipe Maljkovic, Lawrie Inglis, Steve Jennings, Mario Anselmo, Roy Gallo, Pete Gallo, Gino Pacitto, Mike Petrone, Fulvio Stepancich, Carmen Santoro, Greg Zorbas, Graziano Pressacco, Andy Petrie, Nick Dagostino, Jimmy Thompson, Rob MacTaggart, Bob Boettcher, Cesare Paccitto, Bill Shrabek, Alelino Zenha, Gary Thornley, Mike Czerwinec and Mario Cerri.
Apologies for spelling errors - names recorded as provided. If you have any corrections to the spelling above, or you are aware of names that were missed, kindly contact Randy Pascal at firstname.lastname@example.org.