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Grey Cup, MLS final, Centennial Classic lead to challenging season at BMO Field

New Year’s hockey game requires a complete resodding of field in time for soccer opener


February 8, 2017
By Mike Jiggens


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Robert Heggie was aware the 2016 season would prove to be a personal challenge. With the Toronto Argonauts adopting BMO Field as their new home–sharing tenancy with Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC–the field’s head groundskeeper would face the ongoing task of preparing the playing surface for football, converting it over for soccer and returning it to football standards frequently throughout the season.

There were “growing pains” associated with this cyclical process, Heggie said, but he managed to rise to the occasion each time. The concurrent regular seasons for each of the Major League Soccer and Canadian Football League teams served as a dress rehearsal for Heggie and his staff as they prepared for the ultimate game each league had to offer.

BMO Field was selected as the site for the 104th Grey Cup game, at which the Ottawa Redblacks took on the Calgary Stampeders on Nov. 27. A mere three days later, the field was home to MLS’ Eastern Conference final between the hometown FC and visiting Montreal Impact. Then, on Dec. 10, the MLS Cup game between Toronto and the Seattle Sounders FC was played at BMO Field.

Although those contests marked the end of play in 2016 for each of the Argos and FC, there was still one more event (two, really) yet to take place at the stadium only a few weeks from the end of the soccer season.

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Centennial Classic
On New Year’s Day, an outdoor hockey rink constructed atop the field served as the venue for the National Hockey League’s first annual Centennial Classic game, featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings. A day earlier, the teams’ respective alumni squads faced off against one other in an exhibition contest.

Getting BMO Field back into soccer shape a mere three days after the conclusion of the Grey Cup game might have been considered child’s play compared to what was to lie ahead following the back-to-back outdoor hockey games. It was hoped the necessary infrastructure required for the hockey games would be removed by about mid-January, at which point the existing turfgrass beneath would be written off.

Returning the adversely affected soil structure to standard was the first order of business for Heggie and his crew. Rototilling was required to achieve that goal to prepare it for a newly sodded surface in time for the FC’s 2017 home opener in early April. To accomplish that, sodding would have to begin by the latter half of February, Heggie said.

“They (Toronto FC) want to be out on their home field as soon as they can in 2017,” he said.

About 3½ acres of unrolled bluegrass sod from Greenhorizons Sod Farms is being stored in a rented greenhouse in Jordan, Ont. until conditions are right for sodding. Heggie said he was concerned about sodding in February because it can be an unpredictable month, but added, “Usually in February you’ll get a week of four degrees or five degrees (Celsius). Once we see that week, we’re going to go all out to get it rolled up and brought down to BMO Field.”

Upon the new sod’s arrival at the stadium, an inflatable cover shipped from Europe will be deployed to provide the heat needed in February to root the sod and have the surface ready for play in time for early April.

“We won’t need to remove the grow cover to mow and spray and do everything we need to do,” Heggie said. “We just inflate it and go underneath it.”

He said the inflatable cover serves as a greenhouse, meaning the sod will essentially move from one greenhouse to another.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, owner of both BMO Field and the FC franchise, is “very ambitious” in its quest to have the field newly sodded and ready for soccer in plenty of time before the soccer team’s 2017 home opener, he said.

“I don’t see why we can’t do it,” Heggie said, admitting there might be a minor “hiccup” or two experienced along the way.

BMO crew hits home run
In all, he suggested the 2016 season was a “worst case scenario” year. Knowing well ahead of time of the back-to-back championship events scheduled for late November and early December, and that 2016 also marked the Argonauts’ inaugural season at BMO Field, Heggie said he expected some “growing pains.” But, considering how effectively his staff dealt with the challenges, he believes they “hit it out of the park.”

Heggie said he has fielded calls from around the world, asking how he and his staff managed to achieve field conditions that were satisfactory to all parties in both sports.

He described the field conditions for the Grey Cup game as “next to perfect.” No other events were booked for the field for three weeks leading up to the championship game, ensuring such perfection. During those weeks, ample time was spent conditioning the turf beneath the Evergreen grow cover while grow lights did their job on top. The cover was removed every week to mow, spray, fertilize and seed where needed, “just nurturing the lawn like any greenkeeper would for three or four weeks leading up to that event.”

The final cut of the field made prior to the Sunday Grey Cup game was made the preceding Monday, at a height of 1¼ inches. Heggie said he figures the height by game day had risen to 1½ inches which, he reasoned, was beneficial in a couple of ways “to protect the crowns of the plant and give it (the field) a little more shock absorption for the football players.”

Heggie said the feedback he received afterward from the football players about the field conditions was largely positive. The Redblacks players said they loved the turf, but not all members of the Stampeders shared the sentiment. Some of the Calgary players weren’t impressed by the transition from natural to artificial turf in the end zones, claiming the synthetic surface led to slippery conditions that may have been a factor in the outcome of the game.

The negative feedback was simply a matter of “athletes being athletes,” Heggie said, adding that if things don’t go as planned for the players, they tend to blame it on poor conditions rather than a lack of athletic ability.

Some of the Stampeders, however, said they enjoyed playing on a natural surface and wished they could do so for every game.

“Only good things came out of the Grey Cup from the football players, really.”

The slightly longer turf served another important purpose.

“Because it was so long, you’re painting the top of the leaf blades and not the crown of the leaf blades. It made it a lot easier to remove the logos and some of the advertising.”

The field’s lines and logos used for football are painted with a product imported from Australia. Heggie said the paint is removed with relative ease by spraying it with a removal product, hosing it down and brushing the pigment away. The process does “rip out” the turfgrass blades a little bit, “but it’s the lesser of two evils.”

Although logos are commonly painted onto the field for football games, such corporate advertising is not permitted for Major League Soccer games.

Within an hour of the presentation of the Grey Cup to the victorious Ottawa Redblacks, work got underway to remove the gridiron and logos from the field. Paint removal began about 11 p.m. and was finished by about 9 a.m. on Monday.

Grey Cup ‘aggressive’ to field conditions Heggie said the Grey Cup game was perhaps the most aggressive contest he’s seen so far at BMO Field in terms of field wear from a single match. Unlike most games played in the National Football League, the majority of wear wasn’t concentrated down the centre of the field.

“It was just a lot of divoting here and there and all over the place.”

In spite of the narrow three-day window to restore the field to soccer standards, Heggie and his crew managed to successfully pull off the task.

“When you saw the field three days later, you couldn’t really pick out one spot on the field that was really destroyed. The worst part of the field was probably in front of the players’ benches where the team runs on and runs off.”

Most importantly, there were no outstanding playability or safety issues in the aftermath of the football game. Restoring the field to acceptable standards for soccer did not come without effort. Heggie said he and his crew worked around the clock, essentially going 33 straight hours with only a nap in between. He said he personally began working at 9 a.m. on the Sunday of the Grey Cup game and continued until 4 a.m. Monday, at which point he went home, slept four hours and returned to BMO Field to continue working until 9 p.m.

Paint removal was the aesthetic portion of the field’s transformation from football to soccer. The playability treatment was addressed next. The process included topdressing with a camera-appealing green sand and giving the turf a shot of quick-release foliar fertilizer “just to give it some life.” Grow lights were placed on the field that was then topdressed, rolled, aerated and provided with a green pigment and fertilizer to mask any other imperfections. All that remained was mowing soccer lines and painting the field.

BMO Field’s sub-air system remained in operation throughout the process, heating the field to between 15 and 17 degrees Celsius, proving ideal for the Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass plants.

Heggie said that considering a Grey Cup game had been played only a few days earlier and that is was late in November, he said he would have rated his team’s efforts to have the field soccer-ready with an A-plus grade. But, he said, a more realistic grade was B-plus, due only because of the late season limitations.

“For what we were against, no other groundskeeper could do any better, and when you have that limited light source and with cool temperatures, there’s only so much you can do. Considering we had only a three-day turnaround, we hit it out of the park.

“It’s still not the perfect field. We’re not going to kid ourselves. We wish it could be better, but it’s November. We don’t make the schedule. We just try to do what we can with it.”

Unlike the 1½-inch mowing height for football, the playing height for soccer was pared back to three-quarters of an inch in time for the Eastern Conference final. The field was actually mowed twice between the two contests—initially at 1.1 inches and finally at three-quarters.

Heggie confessed a lot of what he does isn’t considered to be “agronomically correct.”

“It’s about getting the game going and getting the show on the road.”

The Toronto area was blessed with reasonably good weather during the time the field was unused prior to the Grey Cup game. Leading up to the game, however, it rained almost daily, and the field wasn’t as dry as many were led to believe. Because of the rain, painting had to be done twice.

By the first weekend in December, temperatures dropped rapidly. Even with the aid of grow covers, a heating system and a limited amount of light, it was difficult to achieve much growth at that time of the year, Heggie said.

Early December snowfall was not an issue at BMO Field because the playing surface was tarp-covered daily and the field temperature was about 17 degrees. The tarp was placed Dec. 1 and removed Dec. 8. Team practices took place on Dec. 9, and the field was covered again overnight before the MLS Cup game on Dec. 10.