“Some of the best moments in my life came because of that league and that team.”

Many memories fade as time passes with the details becoming less vivid and one story occasionally blurring into another.

Yet, all these years later Tony Nocita can still remember as if it was yesterday how his professional soccer dream first germinated, was then fuelled by appearances with the national team and ultimately became a reality in his hometown with the Winnipeg Fury and the Canadian Soccer League in the late 1980s.

And while the Fury disappeared from Winnipeg’s sporting landscape in the mid-90s, the foundation built by the organization locally and the CSL nationally are part of the history that led to the establishment of Valour FC and the Canadian Premier League in 2019.

Nocita and the Fury have been honoured through Valour’s main white and maroon kit this season and a collection of players and staff from their 1992 CSL championship will be saluted at Sunday’s home match against Atlético Ottawa.

Tony Nocita from his playing days with the Winnipeg Fury

“When the Fury and the CSL came on the scene, it truly meant everything to me and to other players,” said Nocita this week in a chat with “Before the Fury came the only other professional opportunity was playing in the later stages of the North American Soccer League, which was coming to its end – and there was a three or four-year period where there was nothing going on except a few start-up leagues in the U.S. – or in Europe. And Europe was an anomaly for everyone at the time. Back then, how do you even start thinking about that?

“So, when the CSL got announced it was, ‘Oh my God… I can’t believe this is actually happening!’ I can’t tell you how much of an impact this had on me because I just wanted an opportunity to play professionally so badly and then to have the chance to do it locally, it meant everything.”

Founded in 1987 by Ralph Cantafio – an iconic figure in the sport in this town who had the soccer complex on Waverly Street named in his honour in 2016 – the Fury and the CSL were born after Canada’s first appearance at the World Cup in 1986 in Mexico.

The franchise would be one of four teams to play every year in the CSL, winning the last Mita Cup in 1992 in an upset over the powerhouse Vancouver 86ers, and then one more season in 1993 as part of the Canadian National Soccer League.

A Winnipeg product, Nocita was truly bitten by the soccer bug when he was 12 and won a local soccer skills competition and was the Manitoba representative at a national event at Olympic Stadium in Montreal which was wrapped around the Canadian men’s national team playing France in a friendly.

“I remember coming home and thinking, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to play for Canada one day,’” said Nocita. “I was just a young kid that didn’t know any better, but that experience galvanized my love for the game.”

Nocita was invited to the Olympic team camp in 1984 and made his debut for the national team in 1987 in a friendly against Honduras, ultimately earning eight caps for Canada. He was also the first pick of the Fury in ’87 and served as team captain while being the face of the franchise.

“It was a bit of double-edged sword sometimes,” he said. “After the season a lot of guys would go home but it was unchartered waters for me being here year-round, dealing with the local press, the community and the pressures of living up to expectations. In hindsight, it was a lot of things I enjoyed living through and finding out about and I think it helped make me into the person I am today.”

Amazingly, while juggling all that he was also attending university and earned his Master’s in Architecture in 1993. He now serves as a partner in business development for M Builds (formerly Manshield), a construction company he has been with for 28 years.

Nocita played until he was 45 – helping Sons of Italy win a national title in 1992 – and serves as the head coach of the FC Winnipeg Lions (formerly Sons of Italy). He has also coached several teams for the Manitoba Soccer Association and guided Manitoba’s squad at two Canada Games.

What Nocita sees now with Valour FC and the CPL is so reminiscent of his days with the Fury. Canada needs men’s and women’s domestic soccer leagues to help grow the game, to help develop players and, just as important, help fuel the dreams the sport’s youngest players.

The Winnipeg Fury’s inaugural squad from 1987

“It was of immense importance that the league and the Fury came along,” Nocita said. “Back then the game was growing dramatically in participation, but there was no end goal after you turned 18, unless you got a university scholarship and back then even that was rare. It was about the opportunity for young players and a great breeding ground for our national team.

“It helped answer a lot of questions about the future of soccer in this country for the next 10-15 years because it really exploded. We became a truly Canadian league. It was so important for me as an athlete and opened the doors for the game to really grow.

“Some of the best moments in my life came because of that league and that team,” Nocita added. “It didn’t come without its pressures, but you I could play in front of friends and family. It was you could learn to deal with that, or not have a league at all. That’s why it was so important then, and so important now.”