Norburn soccer gang story starts with a photo

A picture may be worth a 1,000 words, but as it fades it often rekindles fewer and fewer memories.

One former Burnaby man is hoping one such old photo can rekindle some valuable history, as well as celebrate a former community leader who inspired him and his friends on to living a good life.

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White Rock’s Randy Corbitt and some former North Burnaby soccer teammates will join a few members of the Hill family to hang the picture at Gilmore Community School this weekend, to celebrate the memory of former coach Roy Hill.

Taken 85 years ago, the picture is of Hill and his teammates after winning the 1933 B.C. soccer title while playing for Gilmore.

The photo, found amongst the Hill family possessions in deteriorating condition, was sent by Corbitt to be restored. Suddenly, the washed-out image unveiled the faces of 12 boys and a coach staring stoically for the camera under a tree in the Gilmore front yard.

“I couldn’t believe it, before you could barely see details in some of the faces, and you couldn’t see any of these words – it shows ’33, winners of the Provincial Cup.’ It’s really just the beginning of the story,” said Corbitt.

Hill, second from the left in the top row, would go on to be a co-founder of the Norburn Athletic Club – reflecting that the club also featured boxing and lacrosse teams. In the club’s first year, the Vancouver firefighter rounded up a group of Gilmore boys, pieced together from various levels of experiences and backgrounds, and built another provincial champion.

Corbitt was one of those kids.

“It was pure luck for most of us, to get together,” Corbitt recalled. “(Coach Hill) brought us together and really shaped us into a team.”

For seven straight years, they won the Burnaby league, the districts and advanced to the provincials, then named for the Sun newspaper. Out of five trips to the final, Wesburn won three titles.

Perhaps the biggest game the crew played was an exhibition tilt against Legion 148, another Burnaby squad that was two years older and en route to a Western Canadian and national title in 1966. Despite the age difference, Norburn was neither nervous nor rattled, playing to a 1-1 draw. Legion 148 would be inducted into the Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.

Among the players on Norburn was Glen Johnson. Like his parents, he attended Gilmore and was quickly tagged by Hill as a talent to build a team around.

“I was in a group of little guys who liked soccer but in those days (organized soccer) didn’t start until 11 or 12,” Johnson recalled. “We were three or four years younger, but we made mincemeat of the competition – the closest game was 9-0.”

That first provincials, as Div. 7 players, Gilmore collected the 1961/62 B.C. title in Victoria. Johnson, who tallied 67 goals during 27-game schedule, was named the Sun Soccer Boy at the end of the tourney as the provincial MVP.

The team continued to dominate the Burnaby league for the next six years and repeated as B.C. champs in 1964 and 1967.

“I don’t know how (Hill) did it, but he kept a lot of kids together, supplied some boots and really made it a team,” said Johnson. “We were the Norburn Aces, friends who played soccer all day until it was time to go home.”

Johnson would go on to play five seasons with West Bromwich Albion in England and was the first-ever player signed by the Vancouver Whitecaps in 1974. He played nine matches with the national soccer team and, in 2007, was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame.

He remembers what it was like to be named the Sun’s Soccer Boy in 1962.

“It would be right up there. The Soccer Boy (award) at the time was a very big deal,” said Johnson. “It put me on the map and carried me through. A few years later, at the age of 15 you could go up (and play senior). … First time I was called up, I’ll never forget, for the Columbus Firemen (of the old Pacific Coast league). I was just 15 and there was a guy on the other team started to lean on me pretty good. One of my teammates broke in and said ‘Leave the kid alone.’”

The team also produced another former Whitecap luminary, Bruce Wilson. He joined the Gilmore gang in 1963 and played up with the older boys, never giving an inch to the opposition.

Wilson would captain Canada’s only FIFA World Cup team in 1986, racking up 51 caps. Another original member of the Whitecaps, Wilson was recognized with a 2000 Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame honour.

There was nothing as serious, for a young teenager at the time, as getting ready for the next game.

“Every week all we did was prepare for that game,” recalled Johnson. “It wasn’t school, that’s for sure. If the game was snowed out, we were devastated.”

Corbitt said putting the photo up at Gilmore will be a great way to kick off a campaign to get their former coach inducted into the Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame. A former Vancouver Fire Department chief, Hill garnered the respect of many and was instrumental in establishing organized sports in north Burnaby, where newer immigrants and working class families came together in a melting pot-like neighbourhood.

“There was no one more dedicated, who made such an impact with us boys. He, along with (Tommy Des Lauriers, for boxing, and Art Dickinson, for lacrosse) started Norburn and coached a number of championship teams.

“Although he’s no longer with us, his wife Flo is at 99 years old. It would be fitting if he, and her, had this honour,” said Corbitt.

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