There is an old saying that goes “build it and they will come”. I think Kevin Costner said it best – or words to that effect – but whether it is a field of dreams or a football club, the theory remains the same. It does not always work that way of course. Sometimes you build it and nobody turns up or they come and then leave again relatively quickly. Very occasionally though, it just so comes to pass that they – the people – are already there. And not just there but begging and pleading and crying out for it to be built.
For the best example of this scenario, look no further than Halifax, Nova Scotia.
At the back end of 2016, with rumours rife of a new professional soccer league in Canada, the sports-craving people of Halifax demanded that their home be represented. Unlike many cities in the vast country of Canada, professional sports teams have not been a common occurrence in Halifax. Places like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and both major Alberta cities, Edmonton and Calgary, have long since been able to boast legions of fans in at least one professional sport. Ice hockey, basketball, Canadian football and even soccer teams competing in Major League Soccer (MLS) are all popular and established representatives of the maple leaf in the sports arena.
But the capital of the province of Nova Scotia has barely had a sniff. So, with plans moving swiftly in 2018 to create the brand new Canadian Premier League (CPL), and following Sports & Entertainment Atlantic owner Derek Martin’s meetings with league officials and Halifax councillors, a professional football team was founded and unveiled to the nation on 25 May 2018 – HFX Wanderers FC.
The last piece of the jigsaw ahead of the club’s maiden voyage was the head coach. As we know, the Haligonians were ready and waiting but one man arrived in the country from his homeland of Trinidad & Tobago in the early 1980s and found his home from home in Nova Scotia. That man, a former international footballer for the Soca Warriors, is Stephen Hart. He has coached every level of the Canadian national team in one form or another (as well as his own nation’s senior squad) and when the team at Halifax were starting up, there was only one man for the job.
Heart Of Football caught up with him to discuss the city and the club. We asked him if he felt at home in Halifax and what was so special about the place for him. “Definitely, I love Halifax! People are friendly, with a cosmopolitan feel. The city is big enough to be enjoyable and 30 minutes out you can be on the beach, enjoy coastal scenic drives or relax at any number of accessible lakes.”
Stephen described the level of support surrounding the Wanderers. “We do have one of the best followings in the league. As a matter of fact, we had a fanbase that basically willed the team into existence. Having said that, I don’t think anyone quite anticipated the response we received from fans in year one.
“Away from home it is quite difficult to have a large following due to the size of the country. It is quite expensive to fly, and the closest rival is approximately 18 hours driving. However, at almost every away game, we manage to have a small following which is quite remarkable.”
In April 2019, the inaugural season of the CPL launched and for fans and teams alike, other than FC Edmonton who had previously competed in the North American Soccer League (NASL), what was to follow would be a complete unknown – but an exciting one. Success in the debut season fell to Cavalry FC of Calgary, Alberta who topped both spring and fall season tables and Forge FC of Hamilton, Ontario who were crowned the first ever champions and holders of the North Star Shield crystal trophy. HFX however, despite a steady spring showing that sat them comfortably in the middle of the table, finished overall bottom by the end of the fall season.
We asked Stephen about the club’s opening season form. “They say the table never lies. Last season, we drew seven straight games and won one. Things would have been quite different in the standings if only two games went our way. The reality is it did not happen. Looking back at the games, we had some solid performances. We just did not show enough patience, or precision, in and around the penalty area.”
But if season one was a little underwhelming for the Wanderers’ fans, season two was the complete opposite. The 2020 campaign was always going to be different for two reasons; firstly, a new league will inevitably evolve in its early existence and the CPL is no different, as an extra team was added to bring the number of participating clubs to eight.
Secondly, the world was hit by the global Coronavirus pandemic and as such, the only way to safely hold a football competition was to create a secure bubble for the players and coaches to train and perform in. The CPL did this perhaps better than any other around the world as they created a spectacle called The Island Games – a tournament held exclusively on Prince Edward Island. This round robin league followed by a knockout between the top four placed teams had a World Cup feel and presentation about it that Canada can be rightly proud of.
Without fans in live attendance, nobody knew really what to expect. What transpired was in some ways more of the same as Forge FC ultimately retained their champions crown; one thing, however, that was dramatically different – the performance of HFX Wanderers. Stephen Hart’s men came within one game of becoming champions, losing to Forge 2-0 in the final.
Obviously it was a proud moment and great achievement for the man at the helm and his players, but although Stephen undoubtedly had confidence in his team’s ability to perform, was this level of success expected? “I would be a liar if I said yes. I had no clue what this team would look like, due to the lack of game preparation in the build-up. The potential was evident, but that was based on a judgement of inter-squad games, which is never reliable. What we as a staff discussed was the potential of the squad based on the speed of play and individual qualities.”
And what a selection of individuals they are. The HFX unit, much like the city itself, offers a plethora of different nationalities and cultures. Halifax boasts residents who originate from all corners of the globe, including Indigenous Canadians. The football team itself meanwhile has amongst its ranks Canadians, Europeans, Africans, South Americans and a few players from islands in the Caribbean including Stephen’s own homeland of Trinidad & Tobago.
The head coach is rightly proud of the diversity on display in both the region and the club. “Culturally it is special, though many of the foreign players do not represent the dominant foreign cultures in the city. It’s football so I don’t think it matters much. Trinidad & Tobago and the Caribbean in general, produce many talented players but for some reason opportunities to play abroad have dwindled. This league provides a platform for young players to showcase their ability, so it was relatively easy enough to convince them to join us.”
It is fair to say that the commitment to the future of soccer in Halifax is strong. The league continues to instruct its members to ensure the young players involved are playing a minimum number of minutes over the course of a season and that has increased for the coming 2021 season. The focus on the younger players is widely embraced by each club and HFX Wanderers are no exception. The club have continued their close relationship with Soccer Nova Scotia – the governing body for the sport in the Province and member association of the Canadian Soccer Association – to kick off a training program for players over 16 who the club have their eye on, and will as a result have the opportunity to earn consideration for a place in Wanderers’ planned under-23s team.
The dedication to youth is evident and when we asked Hart if there is a confidence that the owners and President are here for the long haul to make HFX a long-term success, he replied confidently. “Certainly! The commitment our ownership & the League showed to ensure a season for 2020, in such an unprecedented climate, is testament to this fact. Even with no spectators in our stadium, which is the main source of revenue, the determination to make it happen was admirable.”
A fledgling league is always a challenge to get moving. Evolution and expansion have often been the key to the success of the most famous leagues around the world. How does Stephen feel the league is progressing while still in its infancy compared to other countries though? Does he see any further expansion in the near future with more clubs from more cities joining? And with being the sole representative of the east coast and quite some distance to the nearest other clubs, could there be a closer team to them soon that could offer more local derbies?
“Local derbies would be a massive boost, we are already seeing that in Ontario. The Maritimes has its own traditional rivalries so it would be special to have a rival on our doorstep. I do believe that we will see more cities coming into the League. The exposure and recognition the League is getting has opened eyes, especially in regions that generally don’t have professional sports teams. Let’s face it, if Atletico Madrid [with Atletico Ottawa] has invested, I am sure their action alone piqued interest.”
And so the future really does look bright for HFX Wanderers and the Canadian Premier League as a whole. The Halifax Regional Municipality can embrace their football nets as tightly as their fishing nets for a long time to come.