He is the Grand Old Man of Box Lacrosse. For 70 consecutive years, John Cavallin has remained faithful to the game he loves, first as a player, later as a coach and manager, and eventually as an executive at he team, league, Hall of Fame and alumni levels.
The respect he earned as a player over a half century ago has not diminished with time. The admiration for him was most obvious at the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame’s 2000 induction banquet. Sitting at a corner table, flanked by brother Roy “Fritzie” Cavallin and noted sports trainer Lou Moro, John held court for the countless numbers of lacrosse devotees who came to seek advice or simply to fraternize.
Born in Vancouver’s East End on October 31, 1915, he began playing lacrosse in open fields and outdoor boxes, joining Ed Bayley’s Province Bluebirds juvenile and junior teams from 1930 to 1934.
John turned senior in 1935, not with the parent Bluebirds as expected but, rather, with the Richmond Farmers – and what an auspicious introduction it was. On May 14, 1935, in his first Inter-City Lacrosse League game against the tough North Shore Indians, 19-year-old John scored a three-goal hattrick. Later that year, Richmond went on to the Mann Cup finals, albeit an unsuccessful bid against Orillia, Ontario.
By 1936, the senior Bluebirds had folded. The need for a new franchise was evident, prompting Bill Calder, Les Dickinson, Ed Bayley and some of their cronies from the Burrard Liberal Association to give birth to the Vancouver Burrards in time for the 1937 season.
Many of Bayley’s former Bluebird players were recruited to the new club- John Dale, Walt Lee, Bill Chestnut, Wally Ross and Cece McGavin. Coach Les Dickinson also lured his son Bill and the Morphett brothers, Bill and Chuck, from Richmond. Youthful enthusiasm in the forms of Roy Cavallin, George Gray and John MacDonald were added to the mix. But John Cavallin had to wait another two seasons before he was able to join his brother and former Bluebird teammates in the Burrard blues.
For the Burrards, it was a fun ride to the top, form the league basement in 1937 to the Mann Cup finals in 1940. Unfortunately, St. Catharines proved to be the wicked stepmother and the Cinderella Burrards came away with an empty slipper; it would be five more years before the Burrards would celebrate a Canadian championship. The 1945 victory was John’s fourth Mann Cup appearance; 1935 with Richmond, 1945 with Burrads and 1944 when New Westminster Salmonbellies added John and three of his teammates to their war-depleted lineup.
Early on in his career, John became one of the first box lacrosse players to wear a protective helmet, not because he feared his opponents but, rather, to keep his job. It seems that he had a propensity for being cut. His employer at a will-heeled downtown social club warned him that anymore stitches or unsightly gashes could cost him his job. Hence, a head protector!
John mothballed his helmet, pads and stick after the 1948 season but remained with his club as the new coach. Again, success for John was immediate – he led his charges to the 1949 Mann Cup title. He was still behind the bench two years later when the Vancouver team dropped a heart-breaking four-games -to-three national final to Peterborough. The 1951 season wasn’t a total disappointment, though – – Vancouver was featured in an exhibition match before Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.
During his 14-year senior career, John gained 454 goals and 636 assists for 817 points – – 593 of them with Vancouver – – in 399 games. At the Burrards’ 60th anniversary banquet in 1996, the organization honoured John by retiring his Number Five sweater.
His playing and coaching years behind him, John stayed on with the Vancouver team in several administrative positions and later served as a governor with the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
John also was instrumental in the revival of recreational field lacrosse in the mid-1950’s. He spearheaded the formation of the Mainland Field Lacrosse League, served four years as the league commissioner, actively played with the Burrard Oldtimers team, and put on countless training demonstrations at high schools in the Vancouver area.
To this day, he remains involved in the Burrard Alumni organization.
Teammates, opponents, fans and the media all had a healthy respect for John’s offensive and defensive talents and his leadership capabilities. Reporter Sam Cromie described John as a “combination of a midget auto pilot and a Roman gladiator with his tin lid.” Jim Kearney wrote: “Cavallin broke up countless plays and hearts….and steadied Burrards time and again like a gyro stabilizer.
John was never one to heap praise on himself, always-deflecting compliments to other players. When he was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1966, he extolled the merits of others.
Of his own career, he merely lamented: “What a time to find out I was only one game short of 400; and me a coach, too. I could have at least written myself into one more starting lineup instead of having a silly records like 399 games.”
Lacrosse was only one of many sports in which he excelled. John starred in the Pacific Coast soccer league with North Shore United, consideration at the time as the best team in Canada, and in basketball, again at the Senior “A” level. He also skied until he was 75 years of age and golfed until 82. John Cavallin is truly a B.C.-born-and -bred sport icon.