VANCOUVER – John Furlong went to dinner and came home with a job offer.
Now the Vancouver Whitecaps have a new executive chair.
The former Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games chief, Furlong was appointed to the post Thursday after a chance meeting with Greg Kerfoot, the Major League Soccer club’s majority owner, at a dinner party about six weeks ago.
“It never dawned on me that this would be something that I’d be doing,” Furlong said following a news conference. “I’m a season ticket holder, I love the game, I’ve wanted to be going to these games for years, but could never go (because of other commitments) and so, to be involved in this way is great.
“To join an organization that has such great ambition and very human ambition is fantastic for me.”
Furlong oversaw the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Prior to his appointment as the CEO of VANOC, he chaired Vancouver’s Olympic bid group.
Furlong and Kerfoot knew each other previously — VANOC helped the Whitecaps secure an MLS franchise and the two crossed paths at other times.
He was weighing offers that could have taken him to other parts of Canada, but the father of five and grandfather of 11 wanted to remain on the West Coast.
Furlong will work at the team’s office in the same building that used to house VANOC alongside president Bob Lenarduzzi, who oversees soccer operations, and chief operating officer Rachel Lewis, who manages the business side. The former Olympic boss will also strategize with the ownership group, which includes NBA star Steve Nash.
“We’ll just continue what we have done, and John will just add another layer and a wealth of knowledge and experience that the club and both Rachel and I will benefit from,” said Lenarduzzi.
The former Whitecaps player and coach said Furlong will help grow the franchise in communities across B.C. and give it the stability that it lacked during its difficult days in the initial version of the North American Soccer League, when the Whitecaps grew quickly, won a Soccer Bowl title, but collapsed suddenly.
“When I played back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, we were then known as B.C.’s team,” said Lenarduzzi. “The difference now is, this can be sustained. It was lightning in a bottle when I played. It came and it went so fast that it was shocking. We had 28,000 people coming to games and, within five years, we were done. That’s not going to happen this time round.”
Lewis said Furlong will oversee operations with her and Lenarduzzi and act as a chairman of the board for the ownership group.
“These owners want to do more with this franchise than just win on the field,” said Furlong. “They want to win off the field. And, to me, that’s what makes this really special. It’s this idea that we want to embrace the province and make this team belong to everybody.”
Furlong replaces former CEO Paul Barber, who left the team at the end of February. Furlong said the Whitecaps’ desire to build something in the community and make sure children are active in the game appealed to him.
“There’s more to it than just showing up every Saturday and having a game and, at the end of the year, doing the books,” he said. “It’s about seeing how much influence you’ve had and how much good are you doing.”
Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett said the ownership group wanted to hire Furlong because he is one of a kind, has a huge knowledge base, is highly connected, loves soccer and wanted to join the Whitecaps.
Mallett said Furlong will continue to develop the club’s plans for a training centre, enhance the day-of-game experience, further the team’s youth development, increase community outreach and work with Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact on national and regional TV deals.
Apart from his Olympic ties, Furlong has also been a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee and chaired the B.C. Summer Games and Winter Games, as well as Sport B.C.
He co-authored a special report on the 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver, offering recommendations on how to avoid a similar event in the future.
The 61-year-old immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1974 and competed internationally in basketball, handball and squash. He won the 1986 Canadian squash championship.
“I’m not sure that you know this, but I’ve been a soccer-crazed fan my entire life,” said Furlong.
During his school days, he played the game, primarily as a centre back and sometimes as a goalkeeper and striker. He regards the 1966 World Cup between England and Germany as one of the two most profound sporting experiences of his youth, along with 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“I remember we were all cheering for England because they had never won the World Cup,” he said. “We were all hoping and praying this was going to be their time. We had this little black and white TV at home and I was parked in front of it on the day of the final, and my mother told me that I had a job and I needed to get back to work.
“I left my house and I walked on the way back to my job, and on the way, I stopped and watched the World Cup final in a store-front window in Dublin on a colour-screen TV and watched England beat Germany in overtime … I remember the game like it was five minutes ago.”