By Jennifer CroninFree Press Staff
Garth Rizzuto lived the dream of every young boy growing up in Canada, to play hockey in the NHL, but found his true passion elsewhere.
Canadian life for the Rizzuto family began with Garth’s grandfather, Alexander, who immigrated through Ellis Island in 1892, to New York when he was a young boy. At the age of 17 or 18 he returned to Italy and entered the army. Upon his return, he migrated through the western U.S.A., and north to Niagara on the Granby River where he ran the White Star Hotel. He was employed as an interpreter for Italians in the court system. Eventually settling in Elko, he and his brother operated hotels in that area in 1897/1898.
The two brothers bought half interest in the Livery Building on 2nd Ave. in Fernie and together with their partner formed Rizzuto & Crawford.
Heavily involved in the construction trade, they built the Fernie Hotel, and after the fire, rebuilt the Livery. They eventually bought the National Hotel, which was renamed Rizzuto Hotel.
Alexander married Marie Gigliotti, and had a number of children, the youngest being Garth’s father, Alexander who married Peggy Minifee. Garth’s mother was a commissioner for the Girl Guides, as well as a Woolworth’s employee for over 25 years.
Alexander was the head conductor for Canadian Pacific Rail (CPR) in the 50s, living in Trail, B.C. Of his father, Garth recalls, “He was the hardest working man I ever knew. He gave me the “old Italian” work ethic.” Garth’s father retired as the head engineer for the armouries in Nanaimo, and passed away in 1977.
Garth left home at 16. To support himself, he worked at Haug Building Supply in Kelowna for two years. This combined with his grandfather’s involvement in the construction industry may have sparked Garth’s passion for it, but working in that industry would have to wait.
Garth’s hockey career started with the Moose Jaw Canucks, of the WHL.
Considered to be a “speedy” player, Garth turned pro at the age of 19, and was sent to Dallas, where his team won the Adams Cup and he was top scorer. When expansion came, he was drafted by the newly formed Vancouver Canucks, earning him the distinction of being the first B.C. born player to both play and score for that team. In his second year with the Canucks, due to a contractual dispute over playing time, Garth requested a trade (a situation that received mention in the book “Grapes” authored by his one-time roommate, Don Cherry).
He was given the opportunity to go to the Winnipeg Jets in the newly formed WHA where the team made a run for the Avco Cup.
Never making much money as a hockey player, summer work was a necessity. Garth worked at a variety of jobs, and returned to school to earn an Associate degree in Business from UBC.
Plagued by injuries in his second season with the Jets, and with a young family, Garth made the decision to hang up his skates in 1977. “I decided family must come first,” he shared.
Garth returned to construction in 1981. “Building at Whistler for 25 years in commercial and residential gave me a lot of experience, and I was fortunate enough to work with builders who now make Fernie their home,” he states.
Relocating to Fernie in 2007, Garth started his business, Rizzuto Construction, which now employs 11 tradesmen and apprentices and a full time accountant.
Garth recognized early the relationship between the mining industry and communities, acknowledging the sporting facilities built in Trail with the support of Cominco. “I see the same thing here (in the Elk Valley) with Teck. It is an honour to work in the community and for Teck.”
With projects that stretch the length of the Valley, Garth shows no signs of slowing down. “God willing and as long as my health is good I will keep doing what I am doing,” he vows. With a rich family history in construction, and family pride, Garth is down-to-earth “face of the Valley.”