BMO Field's hat trick: Three sports, four games, five weeks, one stadium
This Toronto field has had a frantic 36 days: First the Grey Cup, then Major League Soccer playoffs, and finally an outdoor NHL game to end the year. How did the stadium's organizers and groundskeepers pull it off? Rachel Brady looks behind the scenes at their sophisticated plan and the challenges they faced
Photography by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
On a brisk late November afternoon, a group of men instrumental to the operations of Toronto's BMO Field gathered in a lounge on the first level to discuss the whirlwind of activity ahead. They'd been immersed in logistics for months, and finally the busiest, most prestigious five-week period in the facility's young history was upon them.
Over 36 days, their natural-grass stadium would play host to an eclectic mix of major sports events: the Grey Cup, followed three feverish days later by the Major League Soccer playoffs and then a New Year's Day outdoor NHL game.
It was just days before the Grey Cup, and the grounds were busy with workers. The stadium conversions between events would be labour intensive, intricate and done on tight timelines. No stadium had ever held these three particular events in quick succession before, let alone one with the challenge of maintaining a natural pitch to the standards of soccer stars Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco.
Situated along Toronto's lake shore on the grounds of Exhibition Place, BMO Field would most certainly face snow, rain and freezing temperatures during those five weeks. It would be transformed dramatically for each sport, its capacity stretched by different configurations. There would be parades of personnel from three different leagues and loads of media. It would all come with much public hand-wringing over how the grass would hold up.
Over the year the field had already weathered nine Toronto Argonauts football games, a rugby match, two Canadian women's soccer team friendlies and 21 Toronto FC games. The meticulously maintained pitch would need to be dug up and resodded in 2017, but not before going out with a spectacular bang.
Seated at the table in the BMO Field lounge were Nick Eaves, the chief venues and operations officer at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment; Peter Church, the general manager of BMO Field; Robert Heggie, the head groundskeeper; and MLSE's senior director of communications, Dave Haggith. These figures would play the supporting cast to the main character threading through the big sporting events: the stadium itself.
"We definitely want to pitch for more big events like these," said Eaves of the stadium, which opened humbly in 2007 as the home of Toronto FC but underwent a two-phase, $150-million renovation, completed last spring, to make it a multiuse facility and add the Argonauts as tenants. "Yes, these special events are a lot of work, and we know that. But look at the interest. This really shows the versatility of the building, along with the ability of the teams to create very different atmospheres here. How many stadiums can host these three different outdoor sporting events in different setups with different capacities? It's pretty unique."
The group stepped outside, through the same tunnel Toronto FC players use, and stopped abruptly at the edge of the pitch. It was brilliant green and lush. The rest of the stadium was bustling with workers, but the field was quiet. A small sign read: "Please keep off the field."
Stands for portable grow lights sat on the grass – part of the $7-million MLSE has spent in recent years on tools to maintain the field even in Ontario's cold weather. In 2009, the club switched from artificial turf to natural grass and added underground heating and drainage; a hot glycol-water mix pumped through 42 kilometres of pipes keeps the soil temperature at 14 degrees, even on that cold November afternoon.
The stadium hadn't hosted an event since TFC's Oct. 30 playoff win over New York City FC, giving Heggie and his crew time to nurture the grass for the big games ahead.
"The last three weeks we've been using a woven plastic translucent grow cover that lets the light through but puts the grass back to a July or August temperature underneath that cover," Heggie said. "You can grow the grass a little faster because it doesn't realize it's November. MLSE got me everything a groundskeeper could possibly want to help grow and maintain this field. The healthier and fuller the grass is going into the Grey Cup, the better it will be for the TFC game afterward. We ideally always wanted 10 days between football and soccer games, and then we started doing it in seven. This time we're doing it in three days – the shortest changeover time we've ever had."
The Grey Cup
It was the first Grey Cup on real grass since the 2002 game at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, which had a natural surface until 2009. Typically during a Grey Cup week, the host stadium is abuzz with team practices and working media. This Grey Cup week was different.
"For the first time in my tenure with the league, the two Grey Cup teams weren't actually allowed to practise on the field where they would play," said Curtis Emerson, the director of events and production for the CFL. "So that gave us some logistical challenges, and we had to get creative."
The Calgary Stampeders and Ottawa RedBlacks practised at Toronto's Monarch Park Stadium, a small domed facility that the CFL had to deck out with Internet connections, a media work space and a food truck for reporters. The teams didn't enter the stadium until a walk-through the day before the game.
To further protect the field, the CFL built the halftime stage just beyond the north end zone instead of rolling one onto the field for a performance by OneRepublic. Only a few small utility vehicles loaded with speakers were allowed on the field at halftime, but not before Heggie gave the drivers strict instructions about how to gently manoeuvre them on his pitch.
Ten brightly coloured sponsor logos and a decorative 104th Grey Cup insignia were painted on the field – typical at most CFL games. The end zones were free of team names, so that saved some paint. Still, removing all those logos in time for Wednesday's soccer game would be a big job.
Another challenge was BMO Field's sidelines – narrower than many others in the CFL. The league restricted both teams to just a cheer squad and one mascot, turning down requests for the Stampeders' galloping white touchdown horse and the RedBlacks' chainsaw-wielding team of lumberjacks.
Covers were laid on the grass where the teams stand during the game to help protect the area most prone to wear. Cheerleaders were the only performers on the field at halftime during the OneRepublic show, dancing in front of the stage in the north end zone (which is made of artificial turf).
When the action-packed Grey Cup ended with the RedBlacks as winners in overtime before a crowd of 33,421, a cannon launched confetti just over the Ottawa squad, mostly contained by that sideline tarp. Security personnel promptly roped off the field and diligently kept all the celebrating players and working media to the north end zone. That gave Heggie and his crew the field to themselves. Even as the RedBlacks and their supporters erupted in jubilation, Heggie's crew got to work, repairing field divots with pitchforks and taking down the south goalposts. For them, the countdown clock to soccer had begun ticking.
Heggie winced as a euphoric RedBlacks lineman lay down right on the centrefield logo to savour the victory and appeared as if he might try making an angel – driving the paint further into the turf. "Please don't do it, buddy," Heggie begged quietly, which got a chuckle from his colleagues. To the crew's relief, the player laid still. A dozen more workers would arrive shortly to help scrub off the logos and lines. It would be an all-night job.
Getting ready for another MLS playoff game
The grounds crew would work in shifts around the clock from the conclusion of Sunday's Grey Cup game until Wednesday night's MLS Eastern Conference semi-final between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact. Some members of the crew would rarely leave the stadium during that time, occasionally grabbing a little shut-eye in the groundskeeping shop.
After the stadium emptied out in the hours after the Grey Cup, they mowed the field, which removed some paint. An inch and a half of grass height is optimal for football, while soccer players prefer the grass at three-quarters of an inch on game day.
Heggie's crew had done extensive off-season testing on several field paints. They chose the one recommended by London's Wembley Stadium – Supaturf, from Australia, which comes off only when a special solution is applied; it was the same paint the Wembley crew used in October when they converted its field from an NFL game to a UEFA Champions League match in just three days. Overnight, the BMO Field crew mixed the solution with water and sprayed it onto the paint, leaving it for a few minutes before scrubbing it with brushes and pressure washers. Lines, logos and yard markers vanished one by one and were all gone by sunrise.
Some soccer fans took to Twitter during the Grey Cup, riled up to see chunks of turf flying off the cleats of football players. Heggie's crew had addressed most people's anxieties about sharing a pitch with the CFL by providing a healthy field. But this three-day turnaround had some worried again. The crew relished the challenge.
"Lots of people just think groundskeepers are all like Carl Spackler in Caddy Shack, but we're scientists, we're mixing chemicals, doing math and observing the plants. We're grass experts," Heggie said. "My guys don't mind working all night to prove everyone wrong."
The field wasn't the only thing being rapidly converted. OneRepublic's stage disappeared. Black Grey Cup decor was torn down and replaced with Toronto FC red. Both football end zones were swallowed up by extra seating hauled in on forklifts and popped into place like puzzle pieces.
"It's like a huge jigsaw puzzle," said Church, walking the stadium from end to end, walkie-talkie in hand. "It will be two solid days of non-stop conversion. We do this between every soccer and football game so we know how, but it's a significant manual undertaking – and this time we have a lot less time to do it."
In the darkness, large mobile grow lights were wheeled onto the field to apply a warm yellow light across the grass. The crew knew rain had been forecast for game night, so they prepared by aerating the field to ease drainage before using rollers and brushes to press their signature striped design into the field. When they painted the soccer lines, the groundskeepers tweeted a photo of their measuring tape and took a lighthearted jab at their colleagues in Montreal, whose paint blunder had caused an embarrassing delay during the first leg of the playoff series: "Measure twice, paint once."
Heggie put on a red-and-white TFC scarf in the hours before the Nov. 30 game and shook the outstretched hand of a distinguished guest at field level: MLS commissioner Don Garber.
An MLS playoff classic
Heggie's crew was given hearty congratulations and posed for a photo with Garber, who in the past said publicly that he preferred BMO Field remain a soccer-only facility.
"I was worried when they put a CFL team in here – it's no secret. I run a soccer league," Garber would later say at halftime in a press box heaving with journalists. "But the field turnaround has been terrific. I watched the Grey Cup [on TV] down in the States and I saw a lot of painted logos on the field and was worried, but I got here early tonight to see the field, and they did well."
In pounding rain and a spine-tingling atmosphere, Montreal and Toronto battled in a playoff classic, with the Reds clinching the most celebrated win in the franchise's history. In the same stadium where TFC endured dark days for much of its first decade, there was triumphant singing and dancing, with streamers cascading from the bleachers as the home side hoisted the conference trophy.
They would become the first Canadian team to play in the MLS Cup, hosting the game 10 days later. Even with the stadium's capacity stretched to 36,000, the championship game would sell out in just three minutes.
"We want to host as many championships as we can, hopefully with our own teams," Eaves said. "More tickets could have been sold by putting TFC playoff games in a bigger venue, but BMO Field is TFC's home – the vibe here is what this team is all about. We might have had that debate in the past, but we never considered it this year."
Getting the field pitch-perfect for 2017
As his pitch sat fertilized and pampered beneath a cover and grow lights, resting in the week before its last game, Heggie left on a quick day trip – 100 kilometres around Lake Ontario to Vineland, Ont., to a rented greenhouse.
There, extra-thick rolls of sod were being trucked in from a sports grass farm in Burford, Ont., where Greenhorizons Sod Farms began growing it two years ago. Some 100,000 square feet of grass would rest in the greenhouse until mid-January, when it would be transported down the highway to become BMO Field's new pitch.
In 2017, TFC plans to start its home games much earlier than in the past two years, when the stadium was undergoing renovations. For Heggie, that poses a challenge: installing new sod during a Canadian winter and making it perfect for TFC by late March.
Greenhorizons will arrive at BMO Field after the NHL leaves with its outdoor rink materials (around Jan. 15), remove the current field and install new sod. To care for the new grass in winter, Heggie's crew just bought an inflatable greenhouse they'll erect over the stadium.
"We can't ask anyone how this will turn out," Heggie said, "because we don't know anyone who has done it."
The MLS Cup
Temperatures dropped steadily and snow fell in the lead-up to the MLS Cup. Seattle Sounders and TFC players got one practice at the stadium, their breath visible in the cold air. Workers roamed the stadium with backpack snowblowers, blasting piles of powder, but the small patches of snow on the field melted quickly on soil heated to 15 degrees.
"They've done an amazing job to have the field in such great condition this time of year in this climate and in this region of the world – hats off to the grounds crew," TFC goalkeeper Clint Irwin said. "Today, you could actually hear the ice melting on the field."
Star midfielder Bradley expressed "much respect" for the crew's work. Manager Greg Vanney echoed the compliment. Giovinco would be the only detractor, trying to explain his cramp-plagued season by wondering aloud if the field changeovers had affected his play.
It was -6C as the Saturday night game began. A third successive BMO Field event went to extra time, and the exhilarating night ended with Seattle winning in penalty kicks.
In the days that followed, Heggie turned off the underground heat and snow fell on the grass. Its life as a playing field was over. Its only remaining role was that of a firm, cold surface deep beneath the many layers of an outdoor hockey rink for the final spectacle in the stadium's wild five weeks.
NHL's Centennial Classic
The NHL arrived on the Exhibition Grounds on Dec. 15, pulling up to the stadium with a 53-foot refrigeration unit – the world's biggest. Setting up for the league's 20th outdoor hockey game – with the Toronto Maple Leafs playing host to the Detroit Red Wings – boards, floor tiles, tools and pipes quickly covered much of the icy, dull-green grass. During the league's first few days on site, harsh winter weather meant extra hours for snow removal and to tarp the area against freezing rain.
The rink began with large plastic deck tiles topped with three layers of plywood, then ice pans chilled by coolant circulating from the refrigeration truck. The boards were set up, and ice was made with a spray boom passing over the surface some 250 times, lightly misting it with water. The grey ice was then painted white. Rain and temperatures creeping above freezing weren't major concerns – not with the big truck monitoring the ice temperature.
"Up to game No. 20, we've dealt with every weather situation, and this is the same crew we've had right from the start, so we're confident in our experience," said Mike Craig, the NHL's senior manager of facilities operations. "Still, it can be tough to sleep the night before a game. You're excited and nervous and you want everything to go perfect, so you have to monitor the temperatures every minute."
This NHL game at BMO Field (or Exhibition Stadium, as they've dubbed it for the week, with Scotiabank as the game's title sponsor) may not be steeped in stadium history like recent outdoor games at Dodger Stadium or Soldier Field or Michigan Stadium, where 105,491 fans set a single-game NHL attendance record. For several years, MLSE aimed to land an outdoor NHL game, but only with the renovations of the past two years – new suites, clubs and overhead canopies, plus the ability to add extra seating – did BMO Field become ideal for an outdoor game.
A temporary 5,900-seat bleacher was added to the north end; combined with the 5,800 seats added to a stand on the south side before the Grey Cup, the 40,000-seat configuration will make it BMO Field's largest event yet.
Instead of turf blankets, pitchforks and sprinklers at the ready in the stadium's workshop, dozens of shovels in varying sizes now stand, along with new hockey nets, unblemished by pucks.
Heggie will be among the spectators on New Year's Day, ready for the hockey, the fans and the music that will fill BMO Field with electricity one more time – until the new sod rolls in to prepare for spring.
Follow Rachel Brady on Twitter: @RBradyGlobe
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