Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Blizzard -- Toronto's Soccer White Wash



So wrote Globe and Mail soccer columnist Allen Abel of Toronto Blizzard's home opener at Exhibition Stadium, Sunday April 8 1979. The game, a 2-1 defeat to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, was played amid total chaos. A Home Show near the stadium created some massive traffic snafus, and an estimated 3000 fans were stuck in front of the ticket booths trying to get in the stadium after the game had commenced. As if that wasn't enough, the game was almost canceled after a large snowstorm passed over the city and blanketed the stadium in white. It was as if the soccer gods, angered by the whitewashing of Toronto's soccer heritage, had devised an ironic punishment for the team's new overlords.

By January 1979 NASL's Toronto Metro-Croatia's club owners, drowning in a sea of red, sold the club to Global TV for around 2.5 million dollars. No longer beholden to Toronto's Croatian community, or indeed Toronto's long and storied soccer history, Toronto's new owners changed the name to 'Blizzard,' moved the team from the grass-pitched Varsity stadium to the CNE, an artificial-turfed footballing nightmare, and went on a campaign to market the game to a more middle class suburban crowd, much as had been done with other NASL franchises.



While these changes would ultimately bring in more fans to the Blizzard's home games, there was an initial sense that the club wanted to move away from the leagues filled with immigrant supporters that had heavily influenced the game in Toronto since the early 1950s. As Abel went on to write, "the Blizzard...is spending a fortune to convince you that this city never has had major-league soccer before and that the Toronto team that won the NASL championship in 1976 actually was based in Fort Erie, or Zagreb."

Colin Jose remarked in his book On-side: 125 Years of Soccer in Ontario that the team fielded in April '79 was largely British in make-up, and while the Blizzard would later reach two NASL finals in '83 and '84, the days of the short passing, continental style of play enjoyed by the Metro-Croatia were at an end. Yet the Blizzard are perhaps the best-known local professional side after Toronto FC (a campaign to name the MLS franchise after the Blizzard failed to overtake the TFC nomination), and represent to many Canadians the public face of the professional game. While the Blizzard's success was integral to the rebirth of the game in Toronto twenty-five years after the club's demise, it's important for nostalgia-seekers to acknowledge the team's multicultural roots.

This is part eight of A More Splendid Life's series on the history of soccer in Toronto. Interesting notes -- recently passed TV commentator Brian Budd scored the Blizzard's only goal for Toronto, and Ray Hudson (!), now dubiously of GolTV, scored the leveler for the Strikers.

3 comments:

ursus arctos said...

Richard,

Just wanted to compliment you on an absolutely brilliant series. I will never forget the first time I set eyes on the gorgeous pitch and ivy covered walls of Varsity Stadium; it seemed to me to be the perfect football ground and made such an impression that I seriously considered abandoning the US for UT when it came time to go to university.

As a result, I've seen the Metros, Metros-Croatia, Blizzard and Canada, but I still have learned a great deal from the series, which really deserves a wider audience.

Richard Whittall said...

Thanks Ursus!

I think what I'm most surprised about is the abundance of interesting material to work with, and how so little of it has been documented outside of Colin Jose's tireless efforts making clipping after clipping from various Toronto dailies (watch for an upcoming interview).

Tom Dunmore over at Pitch Invasion will try to promote the series a little more, but this stuff is so good I'm going to see if I can pitch something to one or two local Canadian rags to see if anyone will bite. Anyway I'm very glad you're enjoying it! It's been a lot of fun to research and tonight I'm going to see my very first Canadian Soccer League match.

Lots more to come, and thanks again for reading.

Richard

ursus arctos said...

They definitely deserve a wider audience and I very much hope that they get one.

I'm also very much looking forward to the Colin Jose interview, as I've been reading him for almost 30 years. For those of us who recall the NASL fondly, he is nothing short of a legend.