On a chilly Saturday morning four-year-old Liam Bagnall sat in line on the field at Myrtle Philip School, his mini compatriots lined up beside him, waiting to hear his name called.
Liam stood forward, hands outstretched and accepted his first soccer jersey — a shiny black TimBits shirt with white trim, the Whistler Avalanche logo across the front, the number 18 emblazoned on the back.
It was official. Liam was a soccer player.
That first black jersey was rarely off Liam's back after the first week. It came with him camping. It came with him for a visit to his Grandpa's house. It came everywhere.
"I was afraid it was going to be in tatters by the time we had to return it to the club," laughs mom Caroline Bagnall.
It's the same rite of passage for hundreds of Whistler kids over the years, many of whom will don their new uniforms this Saturday at the beginning of soccer season; it's the same rite of passage for thousands of Canadian kids across the country.
From its humble beginnings with just a handful of kids in 1995 to today with more than 420 kids, the Whistler Youth Soccer Club has become a force to be reckoned with, flourishing in a ski and mountain biking town. Its goal is simple: to nurture a lifelong love of the game.
GROWING AND RETAINING
Hearing another kid fall in love with "the beautiful game" is music to the ears of club president PJ O'Heany.
His enthusiasm for the sport and what the club is doing is infectious, as he describes those young kids in their TimBits jerseys taking the field in flashes of silver, purple, teal and black, like a handful of Smarties running around.
"In the Lower Mainland, soccer really is about activity," says O'Heany. "In Whistler we don't even need that. The kids have so much to do. So we realize when kids want to play we want to make sure that they get enough skill — our goal is to retain them to an adult league. If they master skills well enough then they are willing and able to play as an adult. So soccer grows, and that's our goal."
Soccer is growing. And not just in Whistler.
Where other sports are in decline across the country, soccer continues to be a growth sport. According to the Canadian Soccer Association, it's considered the fastest growing sport in the country with the largest participation.
In the next two to three years, it is estimated that the number of registered soccer players in Canada will reach more than one million.
In Whistler the numbers have been steadily climbing just under ten per cent per year — holding their own around the 400 mark, with 200 in Pemberton and 800 in Squamish.
It's not just the growth, however, not just the new players like Liam Bagnall that has O'Heany stoked about the future. The club is finding that it's holding more and more players over the years. This retention has been key to its success. And delivers on one of the club's core values — developing a passion for the sport.
At 13 years old Emily Nakajima, for example, was at a crossroads.
Like so many Whistler kids, the time had come to choose her sport.
She had been figure skating and playing soccer since she was a little girl, excelling at both, but there simply wasn't enough time to keep playing both at the level she wanted to.
Nakajima chose soccer. Life became the Whistler Youth Soccer Club.
That was three years ago and she hasn't looked back since.
Now at 16 Nakajima is playing with the North Shore Girls U17/U18 Metro team. She also trains every week with the European Football School.
"I see myself playing in Europe for teams like Munich and training with top level players," she says. "I want to continue playing soccer after I graduate and long after that."
Soccer, to put it simply, is her life's passion.
It all began on the fields at Myrtle Phillip. Nakajima was back this summer coaching the little kids at the club, giving back to the club that has given her so much.
It's come so far from that handful of kids in 1995, and club founder Andrée Janyk, who still referees every weekend in the season, says it just brings her joy to see the club of today.
"It's a dream come true," she says.
"Sometimes I'm smiling so much I forget to blow the whistle."