Chart the trajectory of the ‘big three’ sports franchises in Vancouver—the Canucks, Lions, and Whitecaps—and it’s amazing to see the ebb and flow of their respective fortunes over the years. Take a closer look and perhaps even more amazing is that one individual—Kelowna’s Herb Capozzi—played a key role at critical moments in the rise of all three to the point where today each stands in better health than ever before.
Most forget that Capozzi was one of the Vancouver’s finest athletes in his day. His sporting rise began in the early 1940s, where the trail of destruction he left on the football fields of Vancouver College caught the eye of St. Mary’s University in California, who offered a scholarship.
Turning that down to join the gridiron gang at UBC proved a wise move. As team captain in 1947 and 1948, he was named All-Conference at tackle both years. In the banner 1948 season, he led UBC to the Hardy Cup Intercollegiate championship, was voted UBC’s athlete of the year, and was drafted by the New York Giants for a second time. The Giants offered Herb a $4000 contract, which he turned down to remain at UBC.
Rarely stopping to catch his breath, Capozzi also played basketball for the Varsity Chiefs in the Vancouver Intermediate A League, winning the league’s MVP in 1945. In 1950 while a Rhodes Scholar candidate, he was awarded a Rotary International Scholarship to the University of Perugia in Italy, where he played for the Italian University National Basketball team, including a game against the Harlem Globetrotters. He also dabbled in lacrosse, rowing, and swimming in the ‘offseason.’ Upon his return from Italy, Capozzi got the football itch once more and played four years in the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders and Montreal Alouettes, helping the Als to two Grey Cup appearances in 1954 and 1955.
In 1957, Capozzi was appointed General Manager of the BC Lions, still very much the expansion doormats of Canadian football. Three straight losing seasons had worn off the team’s novelty with local fans, but Capozzi quickly went about rebuilding the team on the field bringing in players such as Willie Fleming and Joe Kapp.
As Capozzi’s refurbished team improved, the fans returned to old Empire and were often amused by some of his legendary promotional stunts. Soon they were treated to two trips to the Grey Cup in 1963 and 1964, winning Lord Grey’s cherished chalice in 1964, the first Grey Cup Championship in team history.
When Capozzi left the Lions in 1966 after 9 seasons—one of the longest reigns in team history—he only did so after being elected as an MLA in the BC Legislature, where he served for seven years.
But Herb wasn’t long out of the Vancouver sports limelight. In 1971, when the Canucks were owned by a dodgy Minneapolis conglomerate that found itself in legal troubles, Capozzi stepped in with $3.65 million to ensure the team stayed owned and operating in British Columbia.
In 1973, Capozzi was at the forefront of the creation of the Whitecaps—coining the team’s name himself—and was able to obtain a spot in the burgeoning North American Professional Soccer League. In 1979, the Whitecaps won the NASL Championship after Capozzi had brought a number of top European professionals to Vancouver, while also developing some of Canada’s premier players at home such as one Bob Lenarduzzi.
Capozzi was also involved in the development of racquetball in Canada, opening the country’s first racquetball dedicated facility in 1966. He also played, winning the Canadian Masters and Canadian Golden Masters championships in 1974 and 1981 respectively.
As the Canucks, Lions, and Whitecaps all enjoyed unprecedented financial health, as well as success in the standings during the 2000s decade, perhaps we should tip our hats to one man who solidified the foundation of all three.
Herb, they wouldn’t be where they are today without you.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
Capozzi is also inducted in the UBC Sports Hall of Fame. For his UBC biography, please visit www.ubcsportshalloffame.com