Thrilling HFX Wanderers home opener a landmark moment for Halifax

HFX-Wanderers

HFX Wanderers players celebrate scoring against Forge FC on Saturday. (CPL Photo)

HALIFAX – While serving as coach of the Canadian national team, and desperately trying to drum up fan interest ahead of a World Cup qualifier in Toronto in 2011, Stephen Hart urged local sports fans to buy tickets for the game by famously imploring them to “taste the soup.”

“Come out and see what it’s about, and sort of push the team along. If it’s truly something you want to see — [Canada qualifying for] a World Cup — you could be a big part of that and you could also probably have bragging rights to say ‘I was there from the very beginning,’ and not just jump on the bandwagon,” Hart said at the time.

Eight years later, Hart now finds himself as the head coach of HFX Wanderers FC, who earned a 2-1 win over Hamilton-based Forge FC on Saturday afternoon in their home opener of the Canadian Premier League season. Akeem Garcia wrote his name in the history books as the first goal scorer in Wanderers’ history, and Luis Perea brought the house down with his game-winning goal in the 82nd minute.

Beyond seeing his team earn its first win, Hart had to have liked what he saw, as not only did Halifax sports fans “taste the soup,” they licked their bowls clean and asked for seconds. A sellout crowd of 6,113 fans jammed into the popup stadium located on the historic Wanderers Grounds in the heart of the city, wedged between Citadel Hill and the Public Gardens, marking the return of pro soccer to Halifax for the first time since 1991 when the Nova Scotia Clippers competed in the old Canadian Soccer League.

For Hart, who’s made Halifax his home since immigrating to Canada from his native Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1980s, this was a landmark moment for soccer in the city and province.

“We had one brief outing back in the old CSL. [Clippers coach] Gordon Hill wanted me as a player, but I just started working [as Technical Director] for Soccer Nova Scotia, so I couldn’t be involved and I watched it from afar. 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,” Hart told Sportsnet.

If you walked around downtown in the days leading up to the Wanderers’ home debut, you’d have no idea that pro soccer had landed in Halifax. There’s no all-sports radio station here and there was only minimal coverage in the Chronicle Herald newspaper, so there was little buzz in the city.

Don’t let that fool you, though. One soccer insider told Sportsnet that Halifax is a laid-back town, and that Haligonians don’t typically show their colours or exhibit team spirit out in public until the day of games. That even applies to the QMJHL’s Mooseheads, the junior hockey team that rules the local sporting scene.

Make no mistake, Halifax is a soccer city, as evidenced by the sellout crowd who came out on a dreary Saturday afternoon to cheer on the Wanderers and the more than 5,000 season tickets that the CPL club has sold.

“I knew the soccer community in Halifax was big, but I didn’t realize it was this big. The fact we sold out this game a month ago, I never imagined that could have happened. I thought we could have a lot of fans, but to have 5,000 season ticket holders, the support we’ve received has been unbelievable. Now we have to take care of things on the field,” said Wanderers goalkeeper Christian Oxner, who previously played at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Teammate and fellow Halifax native Scott Firth concurs.

“The soccer community is vibrant here. Hockey overshadows it when you look at social media and such. But when you think about how much soccer is actually being played in Halifax – at the university level and the local clubs – it’s quite a bit. It just doesn’t get spoken about much. Soccer is here, but it doesn’t get the same attention as hockey,” said Firth, an 18-year-old midfielder who is still in Grade 12 at a nearby high school.

That could soon change. From May until October, the Wanderers will essentially have the entire city to themselves, with no competition from the Mooseheads. As the city’s lone top-level, professional franchise, the Wanderers have a huge window of opportunity during the summer months to convert causal sports fans into soccer supporters.

“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,” said team owner Derek Martin.

“This is new for Halifax and the CPL is a national league, and it’s the summer time when there hasn’t been anything here before. It’s been a hockey town and it supports it very well, but hockey is from October and May, so this gives people something to do during the summer time and lets them get out of the house after a long winter.”

Summer is a still more than a month away, and it’s still cold and grey in Halifax. The drizzling conditions on Saturday didn’t dampen the passion or spirit of local soccer enthusiasts, though.

Hundreds of fans, including members of Privateers 1882, the team’s vocal supporter group, filled a downtown bar where the beer was flowing as early as 10 a.m. After a three-hour drink up, the Privateers made their way to Argyle and Sackville, a major downtown intersection, where they gathered with more Wanderers fans from across Halifax.

From there, the gathering of close to 200 supporters marched down the street, waving their flags, beating their drums and singing songs, as they made the 15-minute walk to the stadium. Once in their seats in the east end of the stadium, the supporters never let up for a second, serenading the players on the pitch with 90 minutes worth of songs and chants.

After the final whistle, the fans descended on the dozens of bars located within a stone’s throw of the stadium where once again the beer flowed.

It’s the Wanderers ability to provide a unique gameday experience, including pre- and post-game activities, that will be the key to growing their fan base and expanding soccer’s foothold in the Halifax sporting landscape.

“You can’t just rely on the hard core fan of the sport. You have to make sure you provide a great day for people when they’re at the venue,” Martin said.

“If we can do that, then we’re going to help grow the sport of soccer by introducing it to new fans who normally wouldn’t go into a pub at 9 a.m. to watch the Premier League.”

At the end of the day, it’s still about the product on the field, and the Wanderers couldn’t have hoped for better in their home opener. Saturday’s game was entertaining, played between two teams committed to attacking soccer. Goals were scored and there was plenty of tension and drama, with Perea’s winning goal for the home side in the dying minutes sending the fans into a state of delirium.

For Halifax native and long-time soccer fan James Covey, Saturday was a dream come true, something he’d never thought he’d see in his hometown. And he thinks the best is yet to come – that the city will embrace the Wanderers even more once the weather warms up.

“Halifax is a place you want to be in the summer. Outdoors is a place where you want to be doing things in the summer in Halifax. Now can you can get your ‘sports on’ outdoors in the summer in Halifax, so it’s a no-brainer. I feel like it’s an easy sell in that respect,” Covey offered.

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