Canadian Premier League soccer is back in town.
On Monday, just a couple months shy of two years since their last home game, the HFX Wanderers are set to host Atlético Ottawa for their home opener in front of 4,000 fans — the largest spectator event in the province since the start of the pandemic.
“We’re allowed 4,000 — that’s 50 per cent of our approved capacity,” says club president Derek Martin. “We’ve created 16 zones for 250 people, which is the max for Phase 4.”
Each zone, he explained, would be kept completely separate from all the other zones — from the gates, to the bathrooms, to the bars — to keep everything in line with COVID protocols.
“By doing that, we’re able to get a relatively good number of people that will be at the game,” he says, noting that the usual, pre-pandemic state of affairs would be a sell-out crowd of more than 6,000 fans.
In America, where plenty of sports have been hosting sell-out crowds, there’s been a noticeable rowdiness among formerly cooped-up fans.
If you’ve watched any sports on TV, you have likely noticed this; people are ready to shout and scream in public again. Expect a bit of the same on Monday, Martin says.
“I think there’s some pent-up energy and excitement there, and our 4,000 fans will sound as loud — or louder — as 6,000 would,” he says. “They are the hardcore season-ticket fans.”
It’s also likely to be a nice change of pace for the players, who played the entirety of the 2020 season, a mini-tournament dubbed The Island Games, and the first eight games of the 2021 season, a round of games held in Winnipeg called The Kickoff, away from home.
A number of them who joined for this season or last, Martin says, have never played at the downtown Wanderers Grounds, one of only two grass fields in the league. The team even uses this fact as a recruitment tool, as most of the league plays on artificial turf.
The club hopes that change of pace will turn around the club’s fortunes, more than anything. It’s been a bumpy start to the season.
First, coach Stephen Hart had to fly back to Nova Scotia only a couple of games into the season for a medical procedure. Then, “a few injuries, which were always going to happen, but they hit us early this year,” Martin says.
Add in a bit of bad luck, a few hot goalkeepers and the potentially unnerving quality of playing in an empty 33,000-seat stadium, and the Wanderers come to their home opener tied for second-last place and have scored the fewest goals in the league — only four in eight games.
“I think we didn’t perform as we had hoped in Winnipeg,” Martin says. “But I feel like we’re back on track. We had a great win to finish the time off in Winnipeg. Great that the guys showed that kind of fight.”
And even if you’re not a soccer fan, the return of live events, with spectators numbering in the thousands, is a proud feather in the province’s cap — a welcome bit of live entertainment and a hopeful milestone.
“We certainly believe it is the biggest [event since last March], and we take that responsibility seriously,” Martin says. “We’ve been in touch with public health and the province, and they certainly have said that, as we worked through the plan. ... There’s been a great advancement over the last month or so, with our case numbers as low as they are.”
However, the bad news: good luck getting tickets. At the moment, all 4,000 seats have been allotted to the club’s season ticket holders, and getting your paws on a pair has been a tall order, bordering on impossible.
“Hottest ticket in town,” Martin says. “I’m excited for our players.”