By John Molinaro in Halifax | Photography by Harrison Jardine
By John Molinaro in Halifax | Photography by Harrison Jardine
Pro soccer is back in Halifax after a three-decade absence, and the city's sports scene will never be the same

It’s not even noon, but several patrons in this packed bar in downtown Halifax are already three sheets to the wind. Garrett McPhee isn’t one of them — not yet, at least. Although the beer started flowing freely hours ago, he showed up late to the festivities. “I have some catching up to do,” he quips while clutching a glass of brew.

After making up some ground, McPhee, clad in a camouflaged jacket, is soon standing on a couch and adroitly balancing himself with a beer in each hand as he leads the bar in song. A fellow soccer fan hammers out a beat on a drum and another blows into a vuvuzela to punctuate the rhythm with a series of deafening, monotone notes. In this moment, McPhee is the very picture of a two-fisted drinker.

The bar eventually empties out onto the street and the crowd weaves its way through the downtown core like an army of ants. They reach a rendezvous point where they meet more fans, and their numbers swell to about 200. After a brief drum circle breaks out, the heaving swarm, which includes the city’s mayor, treks straight up Sackville Street, waving their flags and chanting call-and-response style “Who do we sing for? We sing for Wanderers!” while baffled bystanders look on in amazement, wondering why their tranquil Saturday afternoon is being disrupted.

On foot, it’s another 15 minutes to the stadium and once the marching convoy arrives, one-by-one, everybody passes through the turnstiles and makes their way into the East stands, affectionately dubbed “The Kitchen” — an east coast “Kitchen Party” is what happens when Maritimers get together at someone’s house and naturally gravitate to the kitchen.

It’s a cold and drizzly afternoon. There’s not the slightest hint of sunshine, only grey skies above. And yet, there’s nothing but heat coming from The Kitchen, as members of the Privateers 1882 supporters group don’t let up for a single second. For 90 minutes, they scream, sing, chant and dance, and unleash canisters that pour thick clouds of blue smoke over the entire east stands. On the pitch below them, HFX Wanderers FC earn a 2–1 win over Forge FC in the home opener of their inaugural Canadian Premier League season before a sellout crowd of 6,113 fans.

Pro soccer has returned to Halifax after a nearly three-decade absence, and the city’s sports scene will never be the same.

A young fan captures the spirit at Wanderers Grounds on opening day in Halifax

The Wanderers weren’t conceived in Halifax, or anywhere else in the Maritimes for that matter. Rather, the plan to bring a CPL team to the city was born one fateful night at El Catrin, a Mexican restaurant in Toronto’s distillery district. It was there that Derek Martin met with Paul Beirne.

Originally from Hamilton, Martin was a quarterback for St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia before playing pro football in France and Spain. Heading home after his playing career was over, Martin took on roles in Toronto with NFL Canada and the Vanier Cup before returning to the Maritimes with his wife, Allison, a native Haligonian. His passion for sports led him to form Sports & Entertainment Atlantic, which grew into the leading event production company in Atlantic Canada.

In 2010, SEA attempted to bring Toronto FC to town for an exhibition game against the New England Revolution. The effort didn’t pan out, but the process saw Martin forge a friendship with Beirne, then TFC’s vice president for business operations. After a stint with the Ottawa Senators, Beirne moved abroad in 2014 to work for English soccer club Brighton & Hove Albion, but returned to Canada in 2016 and was hired as the CPL’s first employee and named league president two years later.

The CPL wasn’t sanctioned by the Canadian Soccer Association until 2017, but Beirne and others were well into the process of courting prospective team owners by that point. It was at El Catrin over beers during the spring of 2016 that Beirne told Martin about the prospective league and floated the idea of Martin bringing a team to Halifax. Although not a soccer fan, Martin was immediately hooked on the idea. “The minute Paul explained it to me, I thought this was perfect for Halifax,” Martin says. “It wasn’t trying to start something like a CFL team, where you need to have 20,000 fans just to meet the economic responsibilities. It was the right size for Halifax, in that if you could get 5,000 people per game that would work. Those were the numbers we were getting for the events we were already putting on, so I knew we could do it.”

If Martin was going to bring a team to Halifax he first needed somewhere for it to play, and he had his eyes firmly set on Wanderers Grounds, a historic parcel of land wedged between Citadel Hill and the Public Gardens in the heart of the city. Originally part of the Commons urban park, Wanderers Grounds was first leased by the Halifax Wanderers Amateur Athletic Club in 1882 but had fallen into a state of disrepair and neglect. “We scheduled an international rugby match there in the summer of 2015, but we had to cancel it a week before because both coaches deemed the [playing] surface was too dangerous,” Martin says. “The city was embarrassed by that and realized that there was a great opportunity to do something with it. So, they installed a new drainage system, put in new soil, and built it back up, and we started looking at how we could put a stadium there.”

“The chance we have here in Halifax is big. People are craving something that allows them to cheer for a team that competes at a national level.”

In March 2017, Martin pitched city council on a privately funded, pop-up stadium with temporary stands, even though he didn’t yet have a CPL team. Some local residents fought against the idea of a historic piece of land being blighted by a stadium. But soccer fans in the city united to form the Wanderers Supporters Group and backed Martin’s vision with a letter-writing campaign and website. In June 2017, Halifax city councillors unanimously approved Martin’s stadium plan. “Playing into the history of the Grounds is an important part of what we’re doing,” Martin says. “We’re in a very iconic location. That is a big contributor to the whole narrative of the team, and our attempt to bring back to the city what we missed for a long time.”

Another key part of the narrative is the quirkiness of the team’s home — what it lacks in modern convenience, it more than makes up for with charm. The modular stadium boasts a 3,500-seat grandstand stretching from corner flag to corner flag on the north side, and The Kitchen’s 1,000 seats on the east. In a move that is so Halifax, Martin used repurposed shipping containers along the south and west sides to build luxury suites, a press box and locker rooms. With more than 5,000 season ticket holders and another 800-1,200 predicted walk-ups, Martin expects near sellouts for every game, and is already thinking about adding more seating.

You won’t mistake the modest Grounds for Barcelona’s Camp Nou or San Siro in Milan, but it heaves with electricity on opening day, thanks in large part to the passion of the Privateers 1882. That’s what Martin is selling with HFX Wanderers FC: Not so much soccer, although that’s a part of the package, but rather a fun outing and an experience that can’t be enjoyed anywhere else in the city, including at the Scotiabank Centre, home of the QMJHL’s Mooseheads. “The chance we have here in Halifax with the absence of other professional sports is big. People are craving something like this that allows them to cheer for a team that competes at a national level,” Martin says. “It’s been a hockey town and it supports [hockey] very well, but … this gives people something to do during the summertime and lets them get out of the house after a long winter.”

Manager Stephen Hart lives and breathes the sport. "I don’t do well when I’m not involved in soccer," he admits.

With the stadium issue resolved, Martin turned his attention to the soccer operation. The man he eventually hired to build the Wanderers’ roster from scratch is coach and general manager Stephen Hart. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, the 59-year-old Hart is a Haligonian not by birth, but rather by choice. He has spent the bulk of his life in the Maritimes, first as a student and player at Saint Mary’s, and later playing for and coaching the amateur side, Halifax King of Donair, named after a local restaurant chain.

Eventually named technical director of Soccer Nova Scotia, Hart soon after became involved in Canada’s national program. He coached youth sides and took over the men’s senior team twice on an interim basis before being handed the full-time reigns in 2009. His time as Canada’s manager is best remembered for the Reds’ infamous 8–1 loss to Honduras in a World Cup qualifier, a result that prompted his immediate resignation. In 2013, he took over the Trinidadian national team before being fired in 2016. Hart had been out of the game for two years until he was hired as Wanderers’ first coach last June. The timing could not have been better. “I don’t have any hobbies,” Hart says. “I like riding a motorcycle along the coastal roads in Nova Scotia, but even that gets pretty tedious after a while. I don’t do well when I’m not involved in soccer.”

Other candidates were interviewed for the job, and Hart admits he needed to be convinced by Martin, as he had never previously coached a pro club. But as the best-known personality in Nova Scotian soccer, he seemed predestined to take the reins of the new CPL franchise. “I had lots of people tell me ‘He’s the guy you have to get. He’s the guy you want.’ But they also said ‘He’s the guy you probably can’t afford’ and ‘He probably doesn’t want to do it, so good luck,’” Martin says. “It took some recruiting on my part [but] I felt I almost had to hire him just from an optics standpoint, as a way to give ourselves some legitimacy with the soccer crowd.”

For Hart, who’s made Nova Scotia his home since the early 1980s, Wanderers’ home opener was a landmark moment for the sport in the city and province, marking the return of pro soccer to Halifax for the first time since 1991, when the Nova Scotia Clippers competed in the now-defunct Canadian Soccer League. “We had one brief outing back in the old CSL. [Clippers coach] Gordon Hill wanted me as a player, but I just started working for Soccer Nova Scotia, so I couldn’t be involved and I watched it from afar,” Hart says. “The funny thing was [my friends and I] used to joke all the time, saying it would be nice if we had a game to go to every Saturday and we could sit in the stands and enjoy some football. Now it’s a reality. I can’t sit in the stands and enjoy it, but it is a reality. I’m really honoured to play a small part in building this.”

Martin’s team was officially unveiled as the third club to join the CPL on May 25, 2018. As well as confirming its place in the league for the inaugural 2019 season, the club revealed its official crest and colours. Paying homage to their new home, the team also unveiled its branding: HFX Wanderers FC.

Though the CPL was born of a desire to develop domestic players, internationals like midfielder Kodai Iida fill crucial spots on team rosters

The Canadian Premier League officially kicked off in late April and features seven teams from coast to coast: Forge FC (Hamilton), York 9 FC (Toronto area), FC Edmonton, HFX Wanderers FC (Halifax), Valour FC (Winnipeg), Cavalry FC (Calgary) and Pacific FC (Vancouver Island). It is the country’s first domestic league since the CSL folded in 1992.

Sanctioned as Canada’s first division, the CPL was founded by a small group of investors — the most notable among them computer software millionaire and Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young — working in conjunction with the Canadian Soccer Association. CPL commissioner David Clanachan insists the upstart league isn’t in competition with MLS, which boasts a trio of Canadian clubs. But, there is no denying the CPL was largely born out of a desperate need for Canadian soccer to develop domestic players and give them opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t receive, including in MLS.

The CPL’s rules mandate that Canadians make up 51 per cent of every roster (with a limit of seven foreigners), and that teams field a minimum of six Canadian starters per game. Also, at least three Canadians on each team must be under the age of 21, and those U-21 players must combine to play a minimum of 1,000 minutes in each 28-game regular season. “Those are pretty aggressive quotas, and I’m not sure there’s another league in the world that has those kinds of numbers when it comes to domestic players,” Clanachan stated.

“To have a league here, it’s going to open a lot of doors for Canadians.”

With the country set to co-host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, the CPL also hopes to widen the player pool for Canada’s national team and give coach John Herdman more options. “What the CPL will provide is that springboard for young players to move to higher leagues, but it also might produce an absolute diamond in the rough,” Herdman says.

Like the other six CPL teams, HFX Wanderers FC has drawn from the well of local talent to fill out its roster by signing goalkeeper Christian Oxner and midfielder Scott Firth. Oxner, 22, grew up in Clayton Park, a suburb of Halifax, and spent a lot of his childhood with his buddies playing soccer on the fields of the downtown campus of Dalhousie University. He enjoyed a five-year stint with the Saint Mary’s Huskies, while simultaneously helping Western Halifax FC win three provincial championships. He studied commerce at Saint Mary’s and was going to look for a job in computer science after graduation, but then the CPL came along. Oxner was chosen by the Wanderers at the USports draft last November. Now, he’s able to pursue his dream as a pro soccer player. “Without the CPL, I never would have had this opportunity because I don’t think I would have been able to go over to Europe or to MLS,” Oxner says. “To have a league here, it’s going to open a lot of doors for Canadians.”

Veteran Trinidadian midfielder Elton John quickly became a fan favourite with the Wanderers’ faithful — for obvious reasons

Firth is still in Grade 12 at a local high school, and usually trains with the team in the morning during a break in his class schedule and then rushes back to school when he’s done. “The school aspect of it has been a juggling act, that’s for sure,” says Firth, who started playing soccer at age five in the local Timbits program. “I’ve had to talk to teachers to re-arrange classes and assignments, I’ve taken a class online, and get all the work done even when I’m not there.”

Firth made his pro debut at a critical juncture of Wanderers’ home opener, coming on as a second-half substitute with the game tied 1–1, and Hart looking to add steel to his midfield. When Firth’s name was announced over the P.A. system, loud cheers came from the stands in recognition of the hometown boy, with a large contingent of his family, friends and teachers leading the way. Firth isn’t the flashiest of players, but his solid work ethic in the final 21 minutes was symbolic of the character of his team. It also suits the style of play Hart preaches, what he calls a “progressive possession” game, in which the object is to move forward as quickly as possible with the right types of passing decisions. To do that, you need guys like Firth to win the ball and then quickly help the team transition from defence to attack.

Wanderers’ hard work paid off in the 82nd minute, when Colombian striker Luis Alberto Perea pounced on a defensive miscue inside Forge FC’s 18-yard box and hammered home the game-winner in front of The Kitchen. Wild celebrations erupted in the stands and on the field, where Perea was mobbed by his teammates, including the most famous name in the entire league.

Nicknamed “Rocket Man,” veteran Trinidadian midfielder Elton John has quickly become a fan favourite with the Wanderers’ faithful. Since arriving in Halifax, he’s fulfilled countless media requests with reporters who no doubt wouldn’t give him the time of day if he didn’t share his name with the famous English musician. To his credit, he’s embraced the attention with good grace and great humour. “I’m used to it by now. It’s not a problem for me anymore [the way it was] when I was kid growing up and didn’t have the experience to deal with it. Now, I realize I’m building a name for myself. I’m piggybacking off his name,” John admits with a wide, toothy grin.

“I love soccer and I always thought it would be perfect for Halifax — I mean, everyone in Halifax loves a party, right?”

He and the rest of Wanderers’ international contingent (which includes players from Algeria, Colombia, France, Japan, Peru, Saudi Arabia and Trinidad and Tobago) are representative of Halifax’s reputation as a port city that welcomes people from all over the world looking for new opportunities. They haven’t starred for marquee European outfits. Instead, they’ve played for clubs that even hardcore soccer fans would have trouble finding on a map — obscure outfits such as Ma Pau Stars Sports Club, Juticalpa FC and Sport Boys Association. Most are journeymen who travel the world in search of their next opportunity and paycheque, as well as a new culture to experience.

Most of the international players are housed in the same apartment complex, where they constantly hang out together. In between the karaoke competitions and FIFA tournaments, John finds time every day to video chat with his wife and two young daughters back in Trinidad. This is his first time in Canada, and he’s been separated from his family since he started training camp in March. He’s been working on bringing them to Halifax, but in the meantime, he’s found great comfort in the camaraderie of his fellow international teammates. “Halifax is quiet, but we’re the noisy ones,” he says, laughing. “It’s wonderful to have those kinds of friendships, to just open your door and connect with teammates. There’s different cultures, but everybody comes together well.”

The Kitchen at Wanderers Grounds fits a few more people and a lot more energy than your average house party

McPhee was lying in bed, casually looking at his phone, when a post appeared in his Twitter timeline that changed his life. “It was a link to a newspaper article about how Derek Martin was trying to bring a pro soccer team to Halifax,” he recalls. “This was complete news to me. I love soccer and I always thought it would be perfect for Halifax — I mean, everyone in Halifax loves a party, right? I just thought to myself what kind of good Nova Scotia boy would I be if I just sat there? I had to do something.”

Born in Cape Breton, but living in Edmonton at the time, McPhee started a Twitter account that same day dedicated to recruiting Nova Scotian soccer fans to help make the team a reality. Roughly two years before Halifax was even officially welcomed into the league, well before the club had a place to play — heck, before it even had a team — the Wanderers Supporters Group was born.

“Of all the things in life that don’t actually matter, football matters the most.”

Now living in Halifax, McPhee, who works security at the shipyards, has served as one of the driving forces bringing together a vibrant community of fans that includes more than 200 paid members of the Privateers 1882. James Covey, who works at Dalhousie University on the web team, was one of the first to connect with McPhee when he started recruiting members online and is officially recognized as the first member of the supporters group. For Covey, who celebrated his 49th birthday on the same day as the Wanderers’ home debut, the return of pro soccer to Nova Scotia was something he thought he’d never see. “Through my 20s, I felt if I wanted to have all these cultural experiences that I enjoyed having — going to a decent museum, or seeing some foreign films, or going to top-tier soccer — I always had to go to other cities,” Covey says. “I always came up to the edge of moving to a bigger city but I never did. It’s almost accidental and arbitrary that I ended up staying in Halifax, but now it seems like all the stuff I like is finding me here.”

Like Covey and McPhee, Stuart McKeown was drawn into the Privateers by its sense of community. A native of Northern Ireland, he came to Halifax more than nine years ago with his Canadian wife, and fell in love with his adopted hometown. The natural beauty and cultural diversity of Halifax offered him everything he ever wanted in a city — except soccer.

“Of all the things in life that don’t actually matter, football matters the most,” McKeown, who teaches English as a second language, says in the crowd before the opening day kickoff. “Your job matters, your family matters, your health matters — but after that football matters. Living in Halifax is absolutely awesome, but it was missing one thing: a football team. My entire life right now is focused on the Wanderers. The week leading up to [the home opener], my life just went to shit. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. This team means absolutely everything to me, and they haven’t kicked a ball yet.”

For Andre Bourque, a Nova Scotia native and member of Privateers 1882, HFX Wanderers FC are the ultimate expression of civic pride: “This is a city and region of the country that has been ignored,” Bourque says. “[The Wanderers] is us putting our best foot forward and showing what Halifax and the Maritimes is all about. We’re more than just lighthouses, lobsters and fog.”

Designed and edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Harrison Jardine