The Ace Burpee Winnipeggers and Manitobans have come to know and love is a larger-than-life media personality, a tireless volunteer, animal lover, activist, all-around good citizen, and arguably this city’s most fervent front man.
What some might not know about the Virgin 103.1 FM morning man is this: not only is he a diehard soccer fan, but he is also the first founding member of Winnipeg’s entry in the Canadian Premier League, Valour FC.
“It’s very cool. I had no idea it was coming,” began Burpee in a chat with valourfootball.club. “I had already e-mailed (Valour FC President and CEO) Wade (Miller) as soon as the rumours started, and said, ‘Just so you know… I’m in.’ I just wanted to declare I was excited about it. I guess they remembered that and the day before the launch they asked me to come down and be the first founding member.
“All I could say was, ‘That’s ridiculously awesome.’ It was cool. It was really neat.”
Burpee’s appreciation for the sport dates to his days growing up in Cooks Creek, where the game was introduced to kids in the area by Walt McKee, the former University of Manitoba/Winnipeg Blue Bombers kicker who also played soccer and was the Winnipeg Fury Director of Player Personnel and a coach with Canada’s men’s national Olympic team.
“It was pure luck,” said Burpee. “We didn’t have soccer, but Walt McKee was a big soccer guy and he started a soccer team and everyone signed up.
“But my passion as a fan started about 10 years ago when I started going to the Euro Cup and I’ve been to the last couple of those. I started running with a crew, as an adult, that really appreciated soccer and had a skin in the game in that they were either Italian or Portugese and it helped me understand how special and fascinating it is.”
Since then Burpee’s fascination has only grown and he’s attended games in Ukraine, Austria and the most recent World Cup in Russia. Burpee is all about experiencing life, and taking in a match live – especially one featuring national teams – is an experience like no other.
“My first one was almost an excuse… it was England-France in Ukraine (2012),” Burpee explained. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to get to Ukraine, but here’s an excuse to go to Ukraine.’ I’m very happy I did.
“I’ve been to see the Austrians play in Vienna, with tens and tens of thousands of people. It’s better than being at any game, ever. It would be like being at a Jets Whiteout party and multiplying it by 10.
“The whole experience at this year’s World Cup was fascinating. Just to be at those things is special. All that commentary about the game ‘really bringing people together’? When you see it in person, it’s really true, it’s actually a thing. When I was in Moscow, all the Russians were lined up to get photos with the Mexicans. All the fans from Tunisia took over Red Square with a clinic in singing and dancing. When I was at England-Panama, I was the only one not from Panama in my section and they were just the sweetest. It’s so neat.
“When you’re at a Euro or a World Cup you learn more… not about soccer, but about people. I love that stuff.”
The game’s popularity here in Canada has grown since the days of the Fury, Winnipeg’s first pro soccer franchise, and with more matches on television and more Canadians playing and following the sport, Burpee is convinced the CPL has a real chance to put down firm roots and blossom.
“It’s the right moment for it,” he said. “When I was a kid I knew nothing about what happened in the Premier League. All I knew was my cousins, when I was little, made me cheer for West Ham United because they hated West Ham United. They used to have soccer cards, same thing as hockey cards, and I remember sitting around at my grandma’s house in England and they went, ‘Here… you get all these!’ And it was all the West Ham United cards because to them they were useless.
“I never actually saw them or even their jerseys until years later. Then it was like, ‘Wait… West Ham United is on TV. That’s so crazy.’ That’s how quickly it’s grown.
“I can name tons of coworkers or acquaintances, people who grew up here, and they say it’s taken a while for them to catch up to what is actually the appeal of soccer,” Burpee added. “And then because of TV and we’re inundated by it now, people are starting to get it. There are some that are never going to be fans, but there’s also this massive group of Winnipeggers who love soccer and then there’s a huge gap from their favourite sport to No. 2.
“I’m excited for them. They’ve been grinding for years, loving and enjoying the game even before you could get Premiereship games on Saturday on TV. The timing is right and you can tell people are genuinely excited.”
Interestingly, it wasn’t too long after the Valour FC launch in May that Burpee found himself repping the team’s new colours on a hat while on a flight in Russia.
“On the side of the hat it says, ‘Canadian Premiere League’ and wherever I’ve worn it that’s not here I get comments on it,” he said. “I was on a flight to go see England play from Moscow and an English guy saw that on the side of the hat and was really intrigued.
“He said, ‘I’ve never heard of that’ and I said, ‘Correct, you haven’t heard about it yet.’ But you will.”