Hans Niedermayer, the founding father of soccer in Prince George, didn't realize it at the time he arrived in the city in 1956, but he soon found out.
Soccer, as it was played then in a four-team men's league, was more of a blood sport, a chance to sort out political differences on a gravel field at Connaught school. When the scoreboard wasn't sufficient to determine the winners and losers, the Nechako Heaters, Hudson Bay, Mackenzie's Menswear and Rustad Brothers settled scores with their fists. Feuding between ethnic backgrounds renewed old-country conflicts for players and fans alike and the games became problematic, requiring a police presence.
Eventually, the Prince George and District Soccer League collapsed under its own weight but Niedermayer refused to let it go away. The city's forest economy was on the rise and young able-bodied immigrants from soccer hotbeds were arriving regularly to work in the pulp mills, sawmills, lumber camps and on the railroads. He realized the will was there to play the game and he would be the pioneer to bring back soccer as it was meant to be played, with honour and respect.
When Jim Briggs moved to Prince George from England to accept a teaching position at age 24, one of the first questions he asked was if there was an adult soccer league in the city. He was disappointed to learn there wasn't, but he and Niedermayer found a way to revive the game in the early 1960s in the form of the North Cariboo Senior Soccer League.
"Hans was one of the first people I met when I arrived in Prince George and he wasn't the most skillful player but he tried everything to develop the game in the Interior and beyond," said Briggs, from his home in Peachland. "He tried to expand the league to the west and to the north.
"He was always there. He was Mr. Soccer in Prince George. He was a great man and a real gentleman and he loved the beautiful game so much, there was nothing he wouldn't do for it. It was the dominant thing in his life."
Niedermayer died on April 1 at the age of 90. A funeral service will be held Wednesday at 1 p.m. at St. Michael's Anglican Church, 1505 Fifth Ave.
Born and raised in Austria, Niedermayer worked in sawmills when he moved to Prince George from Toronto and eventually he started his own sawmill business. Briggs and Niedermayer worked together with the Rotary clubs and the city to give the North Cariboo League a place to call home.
They received a $27,000 grant from the city and secured a parcel of land (now occupied by the Northland Dodge car dealership) where the league played its games on two fields. Niedermayer put his knowledge of building construction to work in 1974 when he built the clubhouse at the old Rotary field, without charging the league for his labour.
He was also the architect of the covered grandstand project, built in 1978.
"You never had a game at Rotary without Hansy being somewhere in the background," said Briggs. "He lived there on the site full-time for many years in that clubhouse because he was the caretaker of the fields."
The North Cariboo league moved to its current 15th Avenue facility in 1998, but in its day, the old stadium was a soccer facility that drew the envy of many other cities in the province.
It was one of only a few leagues that had its own fields and their value increased annually to the point where the league had enough leverage with the city to negotiate a land swap, which paved the way for the move to the current North Cariboo Field.
As well as being a founding member of the NCSSL, Niedermayer served the league as a board member, president and vice-president. As a player for the Kickers, a team he helped establish in 1964, he was co-winner of the North Cariboo league's most outstanding player award in 1969. He also coached the game and served as a team manager and referee.
In 1980, Niedermayer helped create the Northern B.C. Soccer League, which included teams from Prince George, Smithers, Terrace, Kitimat and Prince Rupert. Two years later he formed the Prince George Recreational League, geared to older players who did not want to play highly-competitive soccer. He also helped lead the push for indoor soccer leagues in the late-70s.
"I don't know if there was anybody more passionate about the game than Hans Niedermayer," said longtime friend Tony Ciolfitto.
"He spent a lot of money on soccer leagues. I picked him up and took him for coffee with the guys (a week before he died) and he told me he had $80,000 and he wanted to bring a pro soccer team to Prince George. That's the passion he had."
Niedermayer was never shy about spending his own money to bring quality soccer to the city. In the early '70s he paid for a chartered flight to bring the Vancouver Eintrecht to Prince George. Eintrecht won the Canadian national men's amateur championship in 1971 and played an all-star team picked mostly from the Labatt's and Croatia teams in the North Cariboo league. Niedermayer also helped bring in the Vancouver Whitecaps for exhibition games against the men's league selects in 1978 and 1979, the year the Whitecaps won the North American Soccer League championship.
In July 1983, the North Cariboo League sponsored a clinic and brought in Gordon Banks, the goalie who helped England win the 1966 World Cup. He and Niedermayer became fast friends, drinking schnapps in the North Cariboo clubhouse.
Niedermayer loved working with kids and was a coach in the Prince George Youth Soccer Association for 25 years and was a rep team coach in the 1970s and 1980s.
The city's winter climate put soccer on hold for more than half the year until Niedermayer decided to form an indoor league, run by the city's recreation department.
Political differences in the executive eventually led to the league splitting into two groups. In 1987 Niedermayer formed the B.C. Indoor Soccer League, which eventually amalgamated with the women's indoor league. He was a strong advocate for female soccer and sponsored teams in the women's outdoor and indoor leagues.
For 25 years he was the voice of the north in the B.C. Soccer Association, the province's governing soccer body, standing up for the rights of northern teams. He was never afraid to speak out when he felt a local soccer group was being treated unfairly.
Outside of soccer, he founded the German Canadian Rhiengold Club and served as its president for several years. Through the club, he helped bring annual Octoberfest activities in the city.
Niedermayer was inducted into the Prince George Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 in the builder category
"I would say he was the father of soccer in this town," said Shafeed Rahman, a P.G. Sports Hall of Fame member who nominated Niedermayer for induction.
"His devotion to soccer, from the '50s to 2005 or so, is incredible and he never took a penny for his work in developing soccer."
Rahman, in his nomination letter to support Niedermayer's hall of fame induction, wrote:
"Hans's total dedication, allegiance, patience, honesty, devotion, hard work, generosity and long-term commitment, not only enhanced the development of soccer, but won the support of many hardworking people who later became an integral part of our soccer community.
"In fighting for principles and fair play, he exposed tenacity, his smart stubbornness and his sheer raw courage. His caring nature reminds us of the shepherd who never left his flock unattended. For hard work, Hans really personifies the perseverance of determined masons, renowned for their abilities in creating buildings with solid and enduring foundations."
Niedermayer is survived by his wife, Anna; sons Hubert (JoAnne), Helmut (Carol), Hans, Jurgen (Susan), Klaus (Tara) and Robert (Lori); daughters Renate and Doris; 17 grandchildren and 22 great grandchildren.