By Mike Jiggens
Canada's sports turf manager of the year looks after one of the country’s most recognized fields as well as a $ 26-million outdoor training complex, but he still likes to get his hands dirty on the job and win the respect of his staff.
“I still remember being in the trenches,” said Robert Heggie, head groundskeeper at Toronto’s BMO Field and KIAâ€ˆTraining Ground. “I think I’ve gained respect from my employees by being out there.”
Heggie was recently recognized as Sports Turf Canada’s sports turf manager of the year, becoming the second individual to receive the honour since the program was initiated a couple of years ago.
Heggie is currently in his sixth season at BMO Field, home of Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC. But he spends only about 30 per cent of his time at the field during a typical season. The bulk of his time is spent looking after the KIA Training Ground—a practice facility for the professional FC team—which is located about 40 minutes north of BMO at Toronto’s Downsview Park.
The demands of managing a sports field used primarily by a professional soccer franchise may be considered demanding enough, but in 2016 BMO Field will become the home of two professional sports teams with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts moving in.
Heggie said he’s “excited” by the Argonauts’ coming move from the Rogers Centre.
“It’s a unique situation. Not many greenskeepers have the opportunity to do both professional football and professional soccer.”
Although there are instances in the United States in which a professional soccer team will share a field with a National Football League club, their schedules don’t overlap as they do in Canada.
The Toronto FC plays from mid-March to late in October while the CFL season begins in June and continues throughâ€ˆNovember with playoffs.
He said the weather will be the “kicker” with the coming of the Argos, noting a dry day will be completely different from have two inches of rain on game day.
“We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best.”
Heggie said the CFL is a “greenskeeper-friendlier” league than the NFL due to the difference in the way the two leagues play the game. The CFLâ€ˆis more of a passing league with one fewer down to gain the same amount of yardage. There is more “smashing around” in the NFL to gain a yard or two, and it is reflected in the field’s condition, he said, adding when play resets in the CFL it is not always in the centre of the field as it is in the NFL.
The Argonauts are already practising on an artificial pitch at the KIA Training Ground, but will soon be playing their home games on BMO Field’s natural turf.
Heggie said he figures with football coming to BMO Field, he won’t be able to rely solely on Kentucky bluegrass for an entire year.
“I’m probably going to get more aggressive with ryegrasses as football and soccer overlap, and then at the end of every year there’s a good chance we’ll probably just have to cut the whole thing out and start again.”
Heggie said it is not uncommon for sports turf managers in the United States to resod their fields every year if they are shared by both an NFLâ€ˆteam and a Major League Baseball franchise.
His staff has become adept over the years at easily converting BMO Field from soccer to rugby and vice versa within a limited time frame, washing out one sport’s painted lines and painting new ones for that day’s game without leaving behind any “ghosting.”
“We’re very good at what we do,” Heggie said, adding the practice of repainting lines will be especially important with the arrival of the Argonauts.
“When the Argos come, we can’t have a gridiron on a soccer field. We have to be able to go back and forth.”
The Argonauts are practising at the site of the KIAâ€ˆTraining Ground’s former nursery, but it has since been converted to artificial turf. Practising on natural turf would become expensive quickly, he said.
Aside from the arrival of the Argonauts to BMO Field, Heggie said he expects another future challenge toward maintaining the field will be related to a canopy that will be erected next year to protect spectators from the elements. Although it won’t be a full roof, leaving the field itself exposed, it will cover the seating area and will block the sun from reaching about six yards of turf at the south end for about a three-week period. About 45 per cent of the field will be covered with artificial lighting to help balance issues related to the canopy.
Heggie said he believes he was nominated for the sports turf manager-of-the-year honour not because of the quality of the turf he manages—which he said he is able to accomplish at a high level because of a healthy budget he is afforded—but because of his continued involvement with turfgrass students.
He entertains University of Guelph turfgrass students each year at BMOâ€ˆField and talks with them in the classroom setting a few times annually. Additionally, he tries to take on an intern every year.
“I like teaching,” he said. “I like growing the industry and making it more professional.”
Heggie said many turfgrass students aren’t aware there is a world outside of the golf industry.
“There’s a very small world for what I do,” he said, adding municipal parks and recreation jobs may not seem as glamourous, yet they pay well.
He himself was a part of the golf industry prior to coming to BMO Field, where he worked for Northgate Farms which held the contract to maintain the field, and then became an employee of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment—the umbrella company which owns the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and the FC team.
Previous to beginning his career with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment six years ago, he helped grow in a new high-end golf course in Barbados, the country in which he was born. Heggie’s mother is a native of Barbados, and he lived with his family there for the first few years of his life. The family moved to the Toronto area where he went to school, including post-secondary studies in horticulture at Ridgetown College and turfgrass management at the University of Guelph.
Having dual citizenship, he had an “in” to work in Barbados and served as assistant superintendent at the new Ape’s Hill course. But the general economy had taken a turn for the worse at the time the exclusive golf course had completed its construction, and Heggie felt he had a more promising future awaiting him in Canada.
With a background in both golf and sports turf, Heggie could identify with the winter kill experienced at several golf courses in the Toronto area following the winter of 2013-14. At his fields, two inches of ice formed on the surface for between 70 and 80 days, resulting in lost turf.
“Everyone loses grass. It’s how quickly you can get it back and what you do.”
Heggie tackled the issue through aggressive seeding, realizing it would cost upwards of $190,000 to resod one field. Coming out of the winter, he couldn’t go with Kentucky bluegrass because of its propensity for slow germination and establishment.
“Soccer players don’t care what they’re playing on. Just give them grass. So we went with ryegrass.”
He has since overseeded with bluegrass to bolster its population, but some visible mottling remains.
Both BMO Field and the practice fields at the KIA Training Ground were constructed in the same fashion with 12 inches of sand, a 95:5 mix and a little less organics than a typical golf greens to maintain its grade. The turf is mowed at one inch at KIA and three-quarters of an inch at BMO. The shorter height at BMO Field stresses the plant, Heggie admitted, and he must rely on ryegrass for wear and tear repair.
He said he is proud of the fact he has never had to use a herbicide application, and only one fungicide application has been put down to date to protect the fields against snow mould.
During his first four years of managing the fields, Heggie had yet to receive his pesticide application exemption. Although he’s had the exemption the past two seasons, he hasn’t needed to take advantage of it except for the one fungicide application to protect the fields going into the past winter.
“When things start going south, sometimes you need it (the ability to use pesticides) now. You don’t have time to wait two or three weeks for someone at the ministry (of the environment) to give you that one-time use slip.”
Heggie said he isn’t “a chemical guy,” but admitted having the right to use pesticides can come in handy when necessary. He likened the exemption to having access to a vaccine, saying he’d rather not have to use it, but suggested it’s nice to have readily available if needed.
One of the advantages he has to help stave off the use of pesticides is a Sub-Air system installed at both facilities. Because he is able to better control soil temperatures and moisture levels, he isn’t as reliant on pesticides. Between the Sub-Air system at BMO Field and his use of growth covers, he can create a greenhouse to achieve dense green grass in March.
Heggie said he much prefers natural turf to artificial even though he admits the synthetic pitch at the KIA Training Ground serves an important purpose. During the months of November, December, January and February, the field is topped by a portable, air-filled bubble, allowing play to continue throughout the winter.
“That’s where I believe artificial has a purpose when you can’t be on grass.”
The only sport which prefers an artificial surface to a natural one is field hockey, he said, noting the players appreciate its greater speed.
The artificial field features sewn-in lines. Its maintenance includes topdressing when its infill needs replenishing, watering the surface to keep it moist and promote better playability, and brushing it once or twice a week.
Managing the artificial field is relatively easy compared to looking after natural turf, he said.
“I can get a well-trained monkey taking care of the artificial.”
Heggie has one salaried assistant working for him as well as two hourly-rated employees he considers as assistants, all of whom studied at the University of Guelph.
“It’s not quantity with me. It’s the quality of your workers because you’re going to get a better job and it will take you less time a lot of the time.”
Additionally, Heggie takes on four to six summer students.