Garth's Got Game
A stint in the NHL, a fulfilling construction career, and a loving family. Local 68 member Garth Rizzuto has scored a hat trick in life—and shows no signs of slowing down
By Rachel Debling
IN 1975, STICK HANDLING TOOK on a whole new meaning for former National Hockey League player and current Local 68 member Garth Rizzuto. After nearly 10 years as a professional hockey player, he traded his favourite wooden tool for a wood-based full-time career: carpentry.
Garth comes from a long line of industrious men and women. His father held a number of jobs across many different trades, working at a logging company, a smelter, and a pulp mill. His grandfather worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and his mother was a Girl Guide commissioner for 56 years.
“It was a very supportive environment to grow up in,” he says. “I started playing hockey in 1952 when I was five, and my father came with me to the rink until I was 13. My parents really loved the game.”
His childhood was filled with activities, from the Boy Scouts to gymnastics, which he excelled at. This encouragement pushed him to hit many milestones in several different sports.
“I was the BC champion for parallel bars and still rings when I was 15,” he says. “I also started playing junior hockey when I was 14 years old. By the time I turned pro when I was 19, a year early, I still had a year of junior league left.”
He complemented his on-ice skills with boxing training. In fact, Garth acted as the head coach for provincial boxing in BC for a decade following his hockey career, running his own club and training three national champions.
Garth believes that the two sports go hand in hand—or more accurately, glove in glove.
“If you’re a passionate hockey player, you can get into fighting situations,” he says. “I always felt it is important to know how to protect yourself, so later in my life I introduced a program to a couple of junior teams. I thought it was an important step for them in becoming a junior and then a pro player.”
THOUGH A STRONG OFFENSIVE PLAYER in the minor leagues, Garth didn’t immediately jump from the juniors to the NHL. He landed in Dallas where he played in the Central Professional Hockey League and the Central Hockey League for three years before he was drafted 18th by the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL’s 1970 expansion draft. He was the first BC-born player to not only play for Vancouver but also to score for them.
“In our day, there were only six teams in the NHL, and today there’s 32,” he notes. “It was very difficult as someone from British Columbia to make it. There were only five of us from the province at the time.”
Garth speaks wistfully of his time in the league. While on the topic of the NHL, comparisons to today’s players and their gameplay style are hard to avoid.
“Today, each team plays a different system,” he explains. “In my era, there was one coach. Now, they have four coaches. I really believe that the system today is way better and more effective.”
Still, there are some aspects of his hockey generation that he misses.
“We used to come out onto the ice as one unit,” says Garth. “Everyone had a role to play, and they all deserved to share the spotlight. I’ll leave it at that.”
He does have kudos for several members of the current Canucks roster.
“I really like a couple of the guys on the club,” he says. “Their captain, Bo Horvat, is an exceptional hockey player. And I worked with the father of Travis Green, the coach of the Canucks, at the pulp mill in Castlegar in my off-seasons.”
ONE PERSON WHO HAD A great influence on Garth’s hockey career—and the game of hockey at large—was none other than Bobby Hull.
“When Bobby heard I was unhappy in Vancouver, he gave me a call,” he says. “I went to Winnipeg and signed a three-year contract with the Jets in the World Hockey Association [WHA] for considerably more money than I was making in the NHL.”
Though the idea of an NHL player struggling to make ends meet might be surprising today, at the time the wage disparity was undeniable. When Garth played for Vancouver, he made $14,000 per year. After moving to the WHA, he earned $25,000, $30,000, and then $35,000 in each of his three years, effectively doubling his salary.
Garth also credits the hockey legend with getting the NHL to pay its players a proper wage.
“The modern-day player has no idea the contribution that Bobby made to the game,” says Garth. “He risked his whole career by going to the WHA from the NHL. He opened up the door for the NHL to realize that they had to pay more money if they wanted to keep talent.”
Another notable name who had a hand in Garth’s growth as a player was outspoken Hockey Night in Canada host Don Cherry. Garth even roomed with the sportscaster during a stint in the American Hockey League.
“We were having contractual problems with Vancouver in my second year, so they sent me to Rochester to play in the AHL,” Garth says. “That was when I roomed with Don. He was living in a hotel at the time with his wife, Rose. He really didn’t have much money.”
There’s printed proof that Garth isn’t embellishing. A passage in Don’s book Grapes said that he wanted Garth to have more ice time, but the manager wouldn’t allow it because of his moustache.
“That shows you the mentality back then,” Garth laughs.
GARTH HAS SEEN FIRST HAND the value of unions throughout his career, especially as a lifetime member of the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA).
“When I was playing in Dallas in 1966, the NHLPA came to us and asked us to join them,” he says. “I’ve been a member ever since. We had to sue the NHL because they weren’t treating us properly, which was unfortunate. I’m a big supporter.”
With a few retirements already behind him—first from hockey, then from the construction company he owned, then from the boxing ring—no one could blame Garth for stepping back and taking it easy. But that is far from the top of the 74-year-old’s list of priorities.
“I’m going to work as long as I can,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed carpentry.”
Though his time paying the bills as a professional athlete has provided him with many memories, Garth speaks with pride about his post-hockey time in the trades.
“I built probably 40 houses in my lifetime, and I did a lot of commercial work when I was up in Whistler,” he recalls. “Stuff I was pretty proud of—condos, staff housing, resorts, things like that.”
His latest large project with his current employer, North America Construction (1993) Ltd. (NAC), was the Jericho Water Reservoir in Langley, BC, which ended in June. Garth has nothing but good things to say about the build.
“It’s unbelievable,” he enthuses. “It’s got 30-foot walls at a five-degree lean. They are built to not only store water but so that the roof is totally functional. It has pickleball courts, a resting area, and a waterfall system.”
BUT IT HASN’T ALWAYS BEEN fun and games. Before joining NAC, Garth had seen how the monopolized union landscape in BC was putting workers at a disadvantage.
“The original union I was in in BC was a closed union,” he remembers. “In the ’70s and ’80s, you couldn’t get in unless you waited for up to five years, and even then, one of your family members had to vouch for you.”
When Garth learned about how CLAC operated in the province, he felt it was a breath of fresh air.
“CLAC was such a step forward for the average worker,” he says. “They helped with things like RSPs, dental, health, and medical. It was a great step in the right direction, especially for young workers.”
Garth believes that the main difference between his work as a carpenter in his early days and now is the shift to specialization.
“When I started out, you knew how to do everything,” he says. “You did your concrete, you did your jousting, you did your framing, roof, siding, windows, finishing—you did it all. Today, everything’s a specialty.”
And that can cause problems, according to Garth.
“A lot of kids will work in the business for 10, 12, 15 years and they don’t understand the whole scope of what they are doing, why the steps are there. It can cause a domino effect if something goes wrong.”
Thankfully, he doesn’t see these issues at NAC.
“NAC is a first-class company to work for,” he says. “They adhere to their safety policies, and they really come down on guys who aren’t following them properly, as they should.”
IN RECENT YEARS, GARTH HAS had the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with his daughter and sharing some important career moments with her.
“My proudest moment was when I took my daughter, Dannielle, and my granddaughter, Daylen, to Dallas to see me inducted into the Texas Hockey Hall of Fame,” he remembers. “I also brought Dannielle to Vancouver with me last year for the 50th anniversary of the Canucks in the NHL. Those were special times for me.”
When the time comes for him to pack up his toolbox and put his feet up—which he again insists won’t be for some time—Garth has big plans.
“I’m going to throw my Saint Bernard in the back of a mobile home, and we’re going to go visit all the people I know,” he says. “I want to be able to see places I’ve never seen and go where I’ve never been. That’s what I want to do—just a little travelling and a whole lot of relaxing.”
No one would argue that this hardworking veteran doesn’t deserve it.
HOW A UNION CHANGED THE NHL
The National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) was originally formed in 1957 when the league refused to release financial information about its pension. Hockey legends Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings and Doug Harvey of the Montreal Canadiens led the fight against the league. The owners engaged in union-busting tactics, including trading players and sending them to the minor leagues, and the association disbanded following an out-of-court settlement. It reformed in 1967 under the leadership of Bob Pullford and Alan Eagleson. While the organization’s focus is salary negotiation and grievance arbitration on behalf of its members, it also makes equipment donations through its Goals & Dreams program, affecting more than 70,000 children who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to play the sport.
Sources: wikipedia.com, nhlpa.com
GARTH’S PEARLS OF WISDOM
On being part of a team – “There are things that you learn from playing on a sports team. You have to learn to work together as a team to win, whether in hockey or on a job site. If you’re not going to participate and be part of that team, then you’ve got to get out of the way.”
On his time in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League – “Because the league was small, they allowed overage players. By the time I was 14, I was playing against guys who were 30 years old. Was it intimidating? Kind of. I guess it should’ve been, but I just wanted to play hockey, so it didn’t really bother me.”
On jumping up to the big leagues a year early – “It’s kind of like I skipped a grade—or more like skipped four grades.”
On being the first BC-born professional player on several teams – “I’ve always been a sort of pioneer in hockey, because there were so few of us from BC. I blazed the way for some other kids. I’m very proud of that.”
On Bobby Hull – “Wherever you went with Bobby, it was a thrill. He was one of the most exciting players I’ve ever seen.”
On whether he would consider entering boxing again – “I was in the ring until I was 68. I’m not going back in again.”
On the celebrations surrounding the Canucks’ 50th anniversary in the NHL – “I made more money in personal appearances last year than my signing bonus when I turned pro in 1966. I got to drop the puck at centre ice, and I did a lot of charity work. It was pretty cool.”
On his time in the trades – “I’m very proud of every project I’ve ever done. My work at Whistler, my work at Fernie Alpine Resort, and now my work in Vancouver. It’s just good to drive by those things and say I worked on those projects.”
On Don Cherry – “Don Cherry is one of the greatest guys that I’ve met in hockey. In my era, there were characters. Now they don’t seem to have them.”
On Hockey Night in Canada – “I was so pleased with Don’s success on CBC. I always like to see a guy from my era do well.”
On the best advice he can give the next generation – “It doesn’t really matter what you choose to do as long as you’re passionate about it. If you want to be a teacher, be passionate about it. If you want to be a doctor, be passionate about it. If you want to be a carpenter, be passionate about it. Always try and be your best. That’s my rule.”
On what he would tell his 19-year-old self – “Be patient. I’ve learned one big thing: life is not a destination, it’s a journey, and you should get the most out of that journey. That’s why we’re here.”
GARTH'S HOCKEY CAREER FAST STATS
Position – Centre
Shoots – Left
Teams played for – Moose Jaw Canucks, Dallas Black Hawks, Vancouver Canucks, Rochester Americans, Seattle Totems, Winnipeg Jets, Nelson Maple Leafs
Leagues played in – CMJHL, CPHL, CHL, NHL, AHL, WHA, WIHL
Years played – 1965-1975
Games played* – 529
Goals* – 133
Assists* – 211
Points* – 344
Penalty minutes* – 586