I know usually rankings are quickly prefaced with an introduction, maybe some qualifying remarks about how the rankings are tallied, etc. However, I am a little weird, so I am going to do mine a little weirder.
I will drop a category. Write a few sentences about how the main winners and losers stack up and then jump to the next. Let’s see if it works, shall we?
Category One: Location
Location is important. Halifax gets it. Downtown. Close to pubs, restaurants, the Citadel and museums. You came for the footy, but you stay for the everything else. Ottawa also has it down. Bank Street is awesome. The canal flowing by stadium. The access to public transit with your ticket. This is the easiest category because I only have to speak glowingly about two places.
ATCO is far from the heart of Calgary (if Calgary had a heart). Really far. Edmonton is right next door to the prime soccer stadium in Alberta, home of the Iceteca. There are some storage warehouses and linen factories nearby if you are looking for post-game action. York is close to the biggest, flashiest, most cosmopolitan city in Canada, relatively speaking. But going to see a game at York Lions Stadium is as far from a Downtown Toronto experience as you can get. But credit where credit is due, it is on a subway line and just off several highways.
Hamilton’s Tim Horton’s Field is in the city, but too far from most pubs and restaurants to walk. I’m a local and it doesn’t align with other places to visit afterwards, like the waterfront or Hess Village. Langford is not Victoria. Admittedly I was lucky to have a local guide (and ride) for the match there. Shuttle buses from local-ish pubs throughout the CPL help fill in a gap for supporters, but all in all the opportunity to extend gameday to a day out is widely missed out on in this league, in my opinion.
Category 2: Amenities
CFL stadiums have more than enough big, clean washrooms for CPL crowds. Top marks for Ottawa, Hamilton and Winnipeg here. Of course, there is the corporate fast-food feel to them, but all have some areas that serve craft beer and alternative foods to hot dogs and a slice. The facilities at YLS and Clarke are ample because there aren’t many too people there to cause back logs, but as they grow their teams, it might be problematic.
Halifax has port-a-potties, so there is that. But they do have a market-type feel to their food amenities, which is cool. Starlight Stadium in Langford feels a little inconvenient getting to the main food and drink area from the opposite side of the field, but their refreshment options are local and in good variety. ATCO Field’s wasn’t bad, but kinda, meh.
Honestly, for footy fans who like to partake of a beverage, specifically a good beer, the options at Wanderers Grounds, IG Field, Starlight and ATCO in Calgary seemed the best to my recollection. While most stadiums have the standard big company beer available and at least one or two smaller craft-y selections, these ones stood out for their local options. (Some of these are hazy recollections faded by the past, and the pints, but I think they stand). ATCO was season one for me in November, but I recall a warm mulled wine or something, yum. Garrison selections were good at HFX, but I think there were others too. I had a lovely local craft, or two, in Winnipeg – I recall a Bluebear-y Beer with a Polar Bear on it. And Starlight had all kinds of local options – and that wasn’t even including the variety of craft beer from around Cascadia in the parking lot during the tailgating pre-game.
Category 3: Soccerishness
Cozy confines. Grass pitches. Supporters Sections behind the goals. Excellent tifos and banners. Where did I see these? Oh yeah, at the usual suspects. Halifax, Calgary and Langford, BC. There is no denying that some stadiums just have a footy-feel. The unique touches of an Equine Event Stadium turned Soccer pitch are peculiar to Calgary. The pillars at the player’s entrance to the flowers along the pitch-side. I like the rolling hill behind the other goal for families to sit on and enjoy the game. The Supporters Section high up behind the goal tight to the pitch leads to some intimidation factor from the Foot Soldiers. The Wanderers Grounds has this feel too, in the Kitchen, the aptly named Supporters Section in Halifax. Loud and always colourful it is the heartbeat of the park. Plus, now they have a corporate beer garden.
At the Supporters Section in Langford, home to the Lakeside Bhoys and T.O.P. is loud and fun too. It seems like it is on the wrong side of pitch, with that beautiful bandshell of a stand at the other end. And with additional seating coming next year it could get even louder at Starlight. The CFL stadiums lose a little something here. It’s kind of like wearing an older sibling’s hand-me-downs. They aren’t quite custom fit to you, and we’ve seen them somewhere else, filled-in better. Not bad, but not the best. (I would be re-miss if I didn’t mention the pies at York. Sharman’s Proper Pies are proper pies…and Pacific’s run a close second, or do Halifax’s. That’s good soccerish-ness.)
The Road To Olympic Gold – FC13 Podcast
Category 4: Surprises
There are many surprises in stadiums around the league. First and foremost, Clarke Stadium ain’t that bad. It is right-sized for the league at this point, even if they can’t fill it yet. Getting the word out, and winning, will do a lot to help that in my opinion. (Having a couple of home games in the summer wouldn’t hurt either. Oh, and the Party Zone being a little closer, like at least the same area code).
Soccer in the big stadiums is loud and fun. No one should sleep on the Atleti Ottawa Supporters. They are boisterous and young and a good time. The group in Winnipeg is way louder than you would expect from watching them on TV, or I guess your computer or phone (I get it, I’m old). They really help the atmosphere in the stadium. I may be biased but I think the Bellows, Section 112 at the Coffee Grounds (aka Tim Horton’s Field) is really a fun place to be. Loud, friendly and smoky on a good day, the Bellows are very welcoming for the home team and a blast to be in, especially if you like to sing. All in all, in person, the big stadiums have a lot to offer. We just need to get over this, “If it isn’t full, it can’t be fun” vibe. There are parks worldwide that don’t sell out but are a lot of fun to visit.
If you plan your trips right, you can get a lot of face time with the Commish. I saw him pre-game in Ottawa, then bumped into him post game and then ran across him in Winnipeg the next week, and each time he was down for a quick chat.
Fake grass isn’t that ugly in person. Something about the TV angles maybe makes me hate it on TV, but it is less noticeable in person until someone gets up covered in pellets after a slide tackle. So that was a little surprise for everyone not named Cavalry or Wanderers.
Category 5: Memories
This category is right off the charts unfair. Because I have made so many memories, good and bad, at the CPL stadia that are unquestionably personal. But that’s too bad because this is my article, so you can give me your away day memories in your own article. (Or better yet in the comments section). First on my list is Calgary, year one. Easy pick because it was when Forge became Forever First. Standing centrefield for the awards ceremony, being vociferously booed by the Foot Soldiers, and even hugging a truly muscular Jose Escalante and wondering how anyone had ever knocked him over, it was dreamland. But there were other memories too. Like walking through an expansive park area, with marching bands and events for the kids that made it seem like a festival. And though we mocked it hard with its brown, November hue, they have grass. I hear it has improved a lot now. It wasn’t so bad then. (Oh yeah and tying Battalion scarves to the horse statues…great fun).
First away day was in Halifax, and as anyone who has taken the trip knows, it was nearly perfect. We had our own section for around 20 diehards. Great pies, great atmosphere and a sold-out stadium. Admittedly, in Halifax most of your memories come beyond the pitch. But seeing the Shipping Containers turned into VIP areas, the green grass of a real footy pitch and the Kitchen in full sound and fury was something special.
York is York. It loses lustre because it is a day trip. The stadium is a university field where the home team seems an afterthought. But since that first game where the weather conspired to kill us in the metal stands, and a now defunct supporters group wanted to rumble with a bunch of old(er) folks who came for the footy and over-priced beer (and the confusing purchasing process – tokens I think) it has grown. Maybe it is the bemused faces of the fans as we sing about fire drills as they file out, or the amazing camaraderie that the several different supporters’ groups have built with us over the years, especially around our mate Lee, but it seems they are slowly coming along. The new rumored stadium can only help. York is the best of a bad hand.
IG Field is the freshest in my mind. It is amazing. Is it too big for the CPL? Heck yes. Is it a wonderful facility with everything you could ever need at the game? Heck yes! It looks terrible on TV for fans accustomed to watching the Barclay’s Premier League every weekend on the telly. But so what? Get out there and you will change your mind. The magical acoustics of the Trench, which seems to have ten people in it sounding like a thousand.
The plentiful food and drink options, the comfortable (and spacious) seating. We moved around and followed our boys wherever we wanted (eventually hanging out with the Welshman family). And I may be biased by the fact that a woman walked up to me in my ridiculous garb, smiled, thanked me for coming and handed me a Heineken, but this place was a blast. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the best deal in the CPL, a beer and bus ride from the Kingshead, a real soccer pub, to the game for a fiver. (And maybe another sneaky freebie at some point too). Sure, IG Field was made for the beloved Blue Bombers. But as the years roll on this will become more Valour’s home too. And it is a good one. (Plus, for anyone who watched Canada Post commercials as a kid the bus to/from the airport totally passes the VALOUR ROAD).
Clarke Field was the biggest disappointment I ever loved. We were in town for the biggest weekend in Canadian soccer history. I had just seen our men’s team beat Costa Rica on the Friday night. The streets around Commonwealth Stadium were electric. We sang ‘Oh Canada’ on the light rail to the game and struggled to find a way home in the crowds afterwards. We even had a local busker serenade us with my request, the ‘Logdrivers Waltz’ (He earned a big tip!). But the next day was the Canadian soccer world’s equivalent to a hangover. Less than a thousand soccer fans made it to Clarke the next day. It was sad. But kinda neat.
Our friends who arrived on time got a bag full of swag each. The permanent stands were fun to sing from, and the relative quiet made it possible for us to harass the coaching staff by constantly yelling instructions to “Tony” that were in opposition theirs. (Turns out Tony was actually Toby Warschewski, who turned out to be kind of a big deal). We enjoyed what must be the cheapest fare in the league and mused about moving to this affordable paradise where seasons tickets and real estate must be affordable. And then as I wandered into the belly of the beast, the supporters’ section, alone, I was serenaded. To be fair the tune was something about an acquired STI, but still, I felt special. It was here that I was also given my Voyageurs toque by a wildly out of place Cavalry fan. Special, weird times.
They tailgate at Starlight Stadium. Yeah, you read that right. The selection of beer brought out by the Lakeside Bhoys, and by travelers from around Cascadia (true story, they had American fans who have been making the trip since their rivalries in other leagues) was top notch. We were given a choice of seating by the President of LSB SG, and we went for the beautiful end-seating that is furthest from them. Nothing personal, but we wanted to sit in that wonderful expansion. We are standers, so we moved to the last row with the approval of the folks behind us and we had a blast. We were loud, and the banter from those around us was great. We even got some nervous Hamiltonians to join in. Oh, and the pie, it was fantastic. My memories of the Island are top notch.
So, who’s left? Ottawa. I have been twice. One was a solo drive decided the day of on a grey, rainy Sunday. It was still fun. The second was a game we organized with the Forge Front Office and got a busload plus some solo drivers to come along for. It was amazing. We were loud and it felt like a real SG’s road trip, like the early York and Halifax ones. The city is great…scooters man! And the fans were in your face, but friendly. It really does feel like they are building something there, but don’t tell them that, they can get annoying with it. The away supporters’ section was great, close to the pitch and lively. We were close enough to have some of our group heckle Atleti players as they warmed up, and they responded. It was a special night. And oh yeah, that ball crossed the line. We could totally see it from the other end on the pitch!
And that leaves the home environs, and this is where it gets totally unfair. Concacaf nights. A heart-breaking final in the slushy, snowy rain. The first ever match. Our first ever goal. First-leg of the first final, when we could have scored 5, but left with a slender 1-0 lead. The brawl versus Cavalry, and a defender in net for a PK. The incredible atmosphere the day we almost knocked off TFC for the delayed 2020 Canadian title, or the night we went down to the keepers in the 11th round of penalties versus CF Montreal. There are simpler memories like that first tifo, or when it was announced we were getting pies (not the actual pies though, just the announcement). I mean for me this can’t even be close, right?
But that’s the thing. Every stadium in the league has something to be hang your hat on. But more than any of that it is the fans. We are in the good ol’ days of the CPL, and the fans get that. We may not always get this close to the players. Be this ‘grassroots’ in our supporter culture. Be this friendly to the visitors because we are happy, “they just made the trip.”
I know we have a good decade or two at least before this becomes a really big deal. But wow, that is what makes every pitch special. So, I guess in a way, everyone wins. But in a more factual way York loses…and Halifax gets to hold on to the title of everyone’s favourite place to visit, for a little while longer. I think everyone’s best moments are made at home. But I have been lucky enough to celebrate some good times everywhere, win or lose.
And for those who are curious, I believe Forge’s record is 5-1-5 when I travel to see them. But I have never seen a win outside Ontario. I may not be allowed to follow them anymore if this gets out.
*Special thanks to the Searls, Marvin and Denton; The forgiving security in Ottawa; Sharman’s Proper Pies for still delivering to Forge fans on a night you had closed the shop; Nicole Demers for The Trip; The Kingshead Pub and the Bus Organizers; Ian Racine and his wife, and our concierge in year one; Toby; Mike and The Hemphill Family (Including the Scottish/Canadian actor); and all the amazing SGs – Lakeside Bhoys, T.O.P., Foot Soldiers, River Valley Vanguard and Co. River Valley, Red River Rising, The Barton Street Battalion, Forge Fanatics and the Juke Box Bhoys, Capital City SG, Bytown Boys, Privateers 1882 and the 27 groups that make up the York United Supporters Group Commission and anyone this sieve for a brain has forgotten.
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