Ah….1979. What a year! Some of us are old enough to remember it. Others less fortunate, well…they can still look it up on Wikipedia.

Some hot new releases topped the FM playlists that year, including AC/DC’s iconic Highway to Hell, Roxanne by The Police, and who could forget Dire Straits, with Sultans of Swing? There was a lot going on in these parts back in ’79. Richmond celebrated 100 years since its incorporation as a municipality, and it also played host to the BC Summer Games.

Continuing the sports theme, anybody who’s a soccer fan will fondly remember that 1979 saw the hometown Vancouver Whitecaps win the NASL Championship with a thrilling 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rowdies. A few days later, an estimated 100,000 fans crammed the streets of downtown Vancouver to take in the victory parade for the ‘Caps upon their return.

But if you lived in Richmond, there was yet another soccer championship to savour that year. It’s one that, until recently, has largely been relegated to the domain of fading scrapbooks and cobwebbed archives. Enter, if you please, the West Richmond Rockets – who will be inaugural inductees into the new Richmond Sports Wall of Fame, which is set to open Saturday, November 21 at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

Coached by the late Ray Bruno, a Richmond Youth Soccer Association Life Member, the ’79 season’s Division 1 (U-18) Rockets played their way to an unparalleled hat-trick of soccer championships:

• Division 1 Provincial Cup Champions (Sun Tournament of Soccer Champions)
• Division 1 Western Canadian Champions
• Division 1 National Champions

If ever there was a powerhouse team to rise out of Richmond, it was the Rockets. The only Richmond boys soccer team thus far to secure a national championship, their remarkable story was hardly a case of the proverbial “flash in the pan.” Just two years earlier, at the jointly held Canadian and US National Championships in Tacoma, Washington, the Division 2 (U-16) Rockets squad were runners-up in the Canadian National Championship final, and finished third overall in North America when they defeated the runners-up of the American finals.

As the old sports axiom goes, “There’s no ‘I’ in TEAM.” But at the same time, any team that achieves such a high level of success surely must boast some pretty significant cogs to power the machine. Between their U-16 and U-18 years, the Rockets had four teammates selected to BC Provincial teams – all of them Richmond residents.

Among them was the Rockets’ U-18 team captain, Darrell Buckham. Playing the key role of center midfielder in Coach Bruno’s demanding 4-3-3 formation, Buckham racked up an astonishing series of soccer accolades while playing for Richmond, for BC, and for Canada. They include:

• Richmond Soccer Boy (best player in Richmond Cup play), 1977
• Sun Soccer Boy (best player in Sun Tournament of Soccer Champions), 1979
• Selected to BC Provincial Team in U-16, U-18 (captain), and U-21 seasons:
a total of 5 championship appearances – 3 national titles, 1 runner-up, and 1 third-place finish
• Selected to Canadian U-19 National Team
• Selected by Vancouver Whitecaps in first round of 1979 draft, but elected to attend SFU instead. Named to the all-star team in his freshman year.
• Captain of BC team, gold medalists at the Canada Summer Games in Thunder Bay, Ontario, 1981

According to Rockets teammate, and former chair of Richmond Soccer, Doug Long, Buckham played a pivotal role in the Rockets’ success:

“Darrell was our preeminent player, and a true captain – not only for his playing abilities, but for his leadership as well. He was, through actions and words, inspirational – challenging all of us to be better as players, so that we could accomplish as a team,” Long said.

Some 36 years later, Darrell Buckham may not be called upon to boss the midfield anymore, but he’s got plenty of other responsibilities. Today, the 54-year-old lives in Vernon, BC, where he’s a Certified Financial Planner with Investors Group.

Always a fierce competitor, it wasn’t so long ago that he had to hang up the cleats. “I played soccer right up until my mid-forties, when knee injuries and father time caught up with me. I only ever had one speed – and that was full out all the time, not a good style as an old timer,” he says.

Though his playing days are done, he’s still heavily involved in soccer – giving back to the game that has given him so much. He’s been a head referee for the past 10 years, and has served on both youth and adult soccer boards in Vernon since 1999.

Buckham took time out with Richmond FC to reflect for a minute on his time with the Rockets:

“The Rockets… first thing I think of is what an incredible group of guys I was fortunate to be a part of. We all lived in the same little town of Richmond. We all were superb athletes, who trained every day, who all loved to play. The chemistry was on the field and off the field. We knew each other so well that we didn’t have to speak. We could almost read each other’s minds.”

But there was much more to the Rockets’ success than pure athletic talent and uncanny chemistry. Buckham is quick to underscore the influence that Coach Ray Bruno had on his team. The respect the Rockets’ midfielder holds for his former mentor is as immense as it is telling – still referring to him as “Mr. Bruno”.

“The confidence we had in each other stemmed from our coach making us believe. He would say to the offence every practice (as we ran the offense against the defence drills), ‘You guys on offence know that you’re up against the best defence in the country, and if you can beat them you can beat anybody.’ He then would tell the defence ‘You know who you are defending against? Those guys are the most talented, gifted, attackers you will ever try and shut down. If you can stop them, you can stop anyone’.

“We all believed him. That was his greatest talent. He made us believe we couldn’t fail. Mr. Bruno would always finish his pre-game chat by saying: ‘But guys… if we play our best and give it everything we have and don’t win, there’s no shame in losing. The sun will still come up tomorrow and 100 years from now no one will care.’ Maybe he was wrong, ’cause 36 years later someone cares.

“I’m humbled and very, very proud and honoured to be part of the magic that was the Rockets, and being inducted into the Wall of Fame is unbelievable.”

Richmond Rockets captain, Darrell Buckham

Richmond Rockets captain, Darrell Buckham

Richmond Sports Wall of Fame

About Rob Scott

Freelance translator, writer, and editor; former editor of Eighty Six Forever. Part-time chauffeur, and full-time soccer dad.