Days before kickoff, the head coach of the Holy Trinity High School Senior Knights was shaking down everyone he knew for tickets to a most unlikely football game.
The ducats weren't for him, explained Kwame Osei. They were for his players, the champions of the Fort McMurray High School Football League. He wanted them to watch the Edmonton Eskimos and Toronto Argonauts play a regular-season game in a new stadium in the northernmost municipality the Canadian Football League has ever visited. That way, said Osei, "It will show the kids what they can do on our field. I can tell them, 'This is where we want to get to. So dream big.'"
Saturday night, two CFL teams displaced by big events in their cities meet in a place where everything operates on a grand scale – big oil companies, big projects, big equipment, big salaries, big lay-offs and big hopes for an upswing in the price of oil. No one is exactly sure when that will happen, but a regular-season pro football game at SMS Equipment Stadium at Shell Place makes for good symbolism – proof that Fort McMurray hasn't boarded up its windows in the face of a mass exodus. On the contrary, the new stadium is a prized addition to one of the largest recreation centres in the country.
"What we are seeing is a drift from boom town to home town," assessed councillor Tyran Ault, adding that the new stadium has also drawn a pair of North American Soccer League matches involving FC Edmonton plus the Western Canadian Summer Games and a concert by Aerosmith.
"After all the negative media coverage we've received," said Ault, "it's refreshing to see the Fort McMurray we all know and love."
Osei can attest to what outsiders think of Fort McMurray. He knew next to nothing about the city other than it was located "up north" and would rise and slump with the price of oil.
Born in Rexdale, Ont., Osei played football at St. Francis Xavier University as a wide receiver. He wasn't selected in the 2011 CFL draft but signed as a free agent with the Argos. Things were going well until he tore a hamstring and was handed his release. Fortunately for Osei, he finished his teaching degree and was offered a position at Holy Trinity. He served as an assistant football coach until being named head man in 2013. The first year under Osei, the Knights failed to win a game. In 2014, Holy Trinity went undefeated during the season and capped it with a league championship in nine-man football.
While all that was happening, the Eskimos were informed by the city of Edmonton that the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup soccer tournament would be taking over Commonwealth Stadium for 11 games in eight days. The Eskimos agreed to play a pre-season game (against the Saskatchewan Roughriders) at Fort McMurray's new digs, then were quick to sign up for a regular-season game.
The $133-million stadium, with 5,000 permanent seats and another 10,000 temporary seats, was built on corporate and municipal funding and is situated between the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers on MacDonald Island Park. The stadium is the latest facility in Fort McMurray's extensive athletic complex. Island Park has three hockey rinks, including the main arena, which opened in 2009 and has hosted the 2015 Grand Slam of Curling Syncrude Elite 10 as well as games from this year's Tim Hortons Canadian ringette championship.
There is also an aquatics centre, two field houses and the adjoining 18-hole Miskanaw Golf and Country Club. The facilities are maintained by the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo, whose officials had three conditions for hosting the CFL preseason game.
"One was that it would be shown nationally on TSN," said Edmonton Eskimos' president and CEO Len Rhodes. "Two, was that the opponent be the Saskatchewan Roughriders; and three, that they had an official date for the game two years in advance [to better market it]. I went to former commissioner Mark Cohon and he said it takes the league months to get its schedule out. But we got the June 13th date to open the stadium against Saskatchewan."
Soon after that game was held, Argos executive chairman and CEO Chris Rudge called Rhodes and asked who he should contact about playing in Fort McMurray. Given how the Pan American Games are going to be spread throughout Southern Ontario, there wasn't any facility where the Argos could play their home games.
No worries, said Rhodes, who threw in a condition that if the Argos were coming north to open their season – as the home team, no less – they had to play the Eskimos.
"We want to be northern Alberta's team starting from Red Deer up to the top of Alberta," said Rhodes. "We looked at this as a fabulous opportunity allowing us to develop our brand."
That doesn't mean everything has been flawless in this northern adventure. Less than a week before the stadium's official opening on June 16, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo council had to approve a $4.3-million request to cover added construction costs to achieve LEED gold status. [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification assures the stadium has addressed public health and environmental concerns.]
As for their part, the Eskimos have acknowledged they are going to lose money playing in Fort McMurray. The team can easily average 40,000 fans a game at Commonwealth Stadium. Extrapolating that over two games, Rhodes said the Eskimos will lose between $150,000 and $300,000. He described it as "investment money in our brand."
In the past two years, Osei's investment in his young players has sent four Holy Trinity grads to Canadian university teams. He and his fellow Fort McMurray coaches are staging a Northern Elite Football Camp this summer in preparation for the jump to 12-man football this fall.
That more kids want to play football is seen as another symbolic gesture, a sign of growth. What Osei wanted was to reach out to his football friends and former teammates for more Edmonton-versus-Toronto tickets. He wants his players to watch and learn. To dream big, too.
"I think this game is good for the community," Osei insisted. "It's not just about the oil sands and layoffs. Football is a way to keep kids out of trouble – more time on the field, less time on the streets. I can see these kids being inspired."