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Sports history steeped in Saanich

Sports historian recounts prominent role Saanich played with local athletics
Mrs. Layritz with the Layrtitz baseball team at the 1958 opening of Layritz Ball Park.

From grassroots to Olympic gold, Saanich’s history is as steeped in athletic success as it is in farming.

In recent history alone, Saanich boasts such Canadian superstars as basketball’s Steve Nash, swimming’s Ryan Cochrane and rowing’s Lindsay Jennerich.

Nash, once a Mount Douglas secondary and St. Michaels University School student, is internationally renowned with two MVP awards from the NBA. Cochrane, of Claremont secondary, retired this year with two Olympic medals and Jennerich, also a Claremont grad, won silver in Rio de Janeiro.

Those are just the latest Saanich names, as the list could go on for pages.

Longtime Cordova Bay resident Dave Unwin, 82, is a Greater Victoria sports historian and former member of the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame. He’s also the author of From the Sidelines 1896-1996: A 100 Year’s View of Vancouver Island Soccer and the Victoria West Athletic Association.

As a young man, Unwin played goal for the Victoria Shamrocks in the early 1950s. He wasn’t the most prominent Shamrock, but it led to a love affair with athletics that he shared as a teacher.

Soon after the Victoria Shamrocks started they recruited a few mainland players including Whitey Severson, who lived in Saanich, as did Archie Browning, albeit briefly before settling into his Esquimalt role.

“You can’t name all the important Saanich athletes, it would be too overwhelming,” Unwin said.

What you can do, is recognize Saanich’s impact on what is known as the Greater Victoria sports scene. Take Saanich’s role in the 1994 Commonwealth Games, which hinged on the creation of Saanich Commonwealth Place and upgrades at UVic’s Centennial Stadium.

For Unwin, the sporting history really took off after the Second World War.

“Sports here grew as Saanich grew, as I remember,” Unwin said. “I was on the Saanich-Oak Bay border, and in the 1950s Saanich was still farmland going north from the intersection of Cedar Hill Road and Shelbourne.

Gordon Head was an undeveloped territory of farms, soon to become a suburb which would provide athletes for two highly successful athletic schools, Lambrick Park and Mount Douglas. Before that, athletic activities were neighbourhood based and relied on local leadership.

In Cordova Bay, it was the Cunninghams, Chuck and Gladys, who promoted winter basketball at the 1949-built Cordova Community Centre. The Benn family (of NHL’s Jamie and Jordie) did the same in West Saanich and Brentwood Bay with basketball and softball. In Lakehill, youth gathered at the Women’s Institute Hall on Quadra Street, where there were “always games.”

“Transportation out from these areas was a problem in those days,” Unwin said. “You didn’t just jump on a bus or take the family car, so community sports was a big part of life.”With the growth of the region in the 1950s came the creation of clubs such as Gorge FC. The Hampton Park club evolved out of the Vets of France Juvenile team in 1950 and soon added players and a sponsor, Gorge Hotel, to become the association it is today. Lakehill Soccer, Cordova Bay and Gordon Head (now Saanich Fusion) also started, as did Hampton, Layritz, National, Lakehill and Cordova Bay baseball clubs. The list goes on.

Some of the bigger organizations, Lakehill and Gordon Head lawn bowls clubs are still healthy, as is the Greater Victoria Horseshoe Pitching Club. The Velox Rugby Club, now the Westshore Rugby Club in Colwood, played out of Gordon Head from 1969 to 2015.

Unwin admits how tricky it is to decipher just which athletic greats called Saanich home. “I grew up on the Oak Bay side of Foul Bay Road on Newton, while my buddies were on the Saanich side of Foul Bay on Newton,” Unwin said. “We were neighbours, I went to Willows, they went to Oaklands, that’s just how it was.”

Unwin is retired from a teaching career that started in 1958-59. He is also responsible for the creation of a cup, which became the Unwin Cup, won in 2016 by the Reynolds Roadrunners, for the boys AAA Island soccer championship.

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