When the B.C. Lions moved into Empire Field at the beginning of last season, they knew they were getting a cozier, more intimate home venue and a fuller chance to interact with their fans.
But any notion that the Lions would maintain their B.C. Place Stadium-dominance at the temporary facility was lost early, when the team dropped its first four games at the new digs. Suddenly, that fan interaction took on a whole different tone, as Lions coaches and players took earfuls from unhappy customers.
The Lions’ 28-6 victory Saturday over the Toronto Argonauts improved their record to 5-9 at the 27,528-seat facility, which will be taken down this month after the Vancouver Whitecaps FC of Major League Soccer play their final home game on Sept. 24 against the Seattle Sounders. B.C. plays its next CFL home game at the new B.C. Place, which has undergone an extensive renovation.
Not surprisingly, the Lions are shedding no tears for Empire. The site is historically significant in Vancouver as the original home of the Lions, and of Roger Bannister’s Miracle Mile at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. But the joint is not full amenities.
The locker rooms were glorified construction trailers, and the Lions had to cross pedestrian traffic on the stadium concourse to get to and from their locker room and the east sidelines.
“I’m not upset that we’re moving on,” veteran centre Angus Reid said. “Just the coziness of the whole field, I will miss that, but I’m excited to move on.”
Even Leos legend Lui Passaglia, who grew up down the street from Empire and began his 25-year, Hall of Fame career at the old Empire Stadium, said he was eager for his beloved team to get back into B.C. Place. The domed stadium has undergone a $565-million renovation since the end of the 2010 Olympics, which includes a retractable roof.
But the new stadium may not provide the same advantages as the old one. The former B.C. Place was known as a graveyard for CFL visitors, especially East Division teams, who went 2-15 under the roof between 2004 and 2008.
The stale, dank air inside the pressurized environment was difficult to breathe, and on nights when the sun beat down on the synthetic roof, it turned the place into an incubator. The old turf used to spook opposing receivers and backs because the painted-on logos were tantamount to serrated concrete.
Then there was the air flow, which baffled opposing kickers, who wondered how there could be a wind effect inside the dome. But there was a gentle breeze, born of the pressurization, enough to effect their minds, if not always the ball flight.
Also, even with a relatively light crowd of 25,000, the old stadium was loud and made life difficult for opposing offences trying to communicate.
“B.C. Place was an intimidating place to play because of the noise,” general manager and head coach Wally Buono said. “What I’m hoping is that every [opponent]who comes in there is awed, and they don’t focus on football.”
The Lions were 49-18 in the Buono era at the old B.C. Place, but the new stadium promises to feel like an open-air environment, far more airy than the closed dome. While spectators and players alike will certainly welcome a fresher environment, it does mean that noise will escape more easily.
“I can’t give it that much credit,” Reid said when asked how much the old stadium’s features helped the home team’s record. “[Home-field]advantage is going to come back if we become a dominant team again. ... The field itself is a little gravy on top, it can make it a little more difficult [for visitors] But that’s not going to win or lose you the game.”