The sports fan on British Columbia’s Lower Mainland has been quite spoiled over the last 18 months.
From the Olympic Games to the debut of a Major League Soccer franchise, plus a near-miss from the NHL Canucks in the Stanley Cup final, major sports happenings have been the norm on Canada’s west coast.
Friday brought the penultimate event.
The CFL’s Lions opened the new BC Place Stadium with a 33-24 victory over the Edmonton Eskimos before 50,213 fans. B.C. (7-6) extended its winning streak to six games, and moved into second place in the West Division because it holds a tiebreaker advantage over the Eskimos (7-6).
BC Place, a state-of-the-art facility that has undergone a $563-million renovation since the conclusion of the Olympics, will play host to the 99th Grey Cup game in November – capping nearly two years of memorable sports experiences for Vancouverites.
The game was about 2,000 shy of a sellout, and was the 10th-largest crowd in the history of the Lions after 19,000 tickets were sold in the last week. It was their largest regular-season crowd in more than 20 years.
The stadium’s capacity for football is 52,465.
Despite rain in the forecast, the Lions decided to open the roof for the pre-game festivities, and left it open for the entire game. The retractable lid drew many gawkers, given the old B.C. Place was a covered environment devoid of fresh air and an evening sky.
“I thought it was awesome,” Lions quarterback Travis Lulay said. “It’s really bright on the field, and you see a ton of orange in the stands.”
The Lions decided to lift the local television blackout just hours before game time, averting a potential public relations disaster. B.C. taxpayers paid more than a half billion dollars to renovate the provincially-owned stadium, and Friday night learned how their money was spent.
“It’s got a certain electricity to it, whether it’s [crowds of]25,000 or 50,000,” Lions general manager Wally Buono said. “Soon as I walked in here tonight, you could sense the difference. ... This place has energy.”
The one disappointment was the sound. The old stadium was known for muffled sound from the public address system and the on-field microphone; the problems have carried over into the new facility.
Fans were also subjected to long lines, both at the will-call window outside the stadium and at the concessions stands inside. Lions president Dennis Skulsky said the club knew that some bugs would have to be worked out, but was pleased that nothing major failed for opening night.
The game itself turned late in the third quarter when Andrew Harris caught a harmless-looking screen pass, broke two tackles, and raced 63 yards for a touchdown. That gave the home team an 11-point lead.
The Eskimos fought back valiantly in the fourth quarter, but their comeback attempt was thwarted with about two minutes remaining, when they turned the ball over on downs at B.C.’s four-yard line. Edmonton was down nine points at the time and could have kicked a field goal, but head coach Kavis Reed said he wasn’t sure his team would get another possession, let alone have the ball that deep in B.C. territory.
“You have to gauge the game,” Reed said. “I felt it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”
The Lions asked that kick-off be delayed until 7:42 p.m. PT – it would normally happen at 7:38 p.m. – in order to accommodate pre-game festivities, which featured Sarah McLachlan singing the national anthem, the presentation of the game-ball from Lions legend Lui Passaglia, and a photo opportunity at centre-field with team owner David Braley and other dignitaries.
But kick-off was delayed a further 20 minutes at the request of TSN. The CFL’s television partner wanted to move directly from the conclusion of the Winnipeg-Montreal game, the first of its doubleheader, to an overhead shot of the new stadium and the festivities. TSN could not move one of the games to its secondary channel because of a commitment to a live World Cup of Rugby match.
However, because the Alouettes-Blue Bombers game ran long, and included several officials’ delays in the dying seconds, the pre-game festivities inside B.C. Place suddenly stopped. An announcement was made about the cause of the delay, and many Eskimos players began warming up for a second time as time ticked by with no action on the field.
“I was losing it,” Skulsky said. “The fans were patient, but you can only keep them jacked up for so long.”
At one point, the Lions approached the league to ask that the game begin regardless of the proceedings in Winnipeg. Kick-off eventually came at 8:01 p.m. local time.
Reed was matter-of-fact about the delay, saying it was beyond his control. Buono wasn’t quite as understanding.
“I’m a good employee,” Buono said. “Put it that way.”