TORONTO – February is the cruelest month, especially in Toronto.
A tour through town displays the decimation a long, cold winter lays on the vegetation. Even the hardiest of trees suffer; the city a mishmash of alternating dust and sog, melt and frost ever uneven.
But a first glimpse at BMO Field on Monday reveals a different vision: the verdant green of the pitch, the gleaming red of the seats; all waiting in anticipation of Tuesday night's kickoff against the Colorado Rapids in the second leg of the Round of 16 CONCACAF Champions League encounter.
On Saturday, Columbus Crew SC will arrive to kick off the 2018 MLS season, and should progression to the next round of the champions league be achieved, more matches lie ahead in short order.
“Possibly three games in seven days, in February, with four practices,” said Robert Heggie, BMO Field's Head Groundskeeper, sizing up the challenge before him.
“It being February, there are a lot of limitations for natural grass: the temperature, the snow we had two weeks ago... all that fun stuff,” outlines Heggie. “One thing people don't usually think about is the limited light this time of year. We're at about 11 hours a day, not including the structure of stadium, taking shade into effect.”
“If you look at the field right now,” said Heggie early afternoon on Monday, “the shade is already creeping in on the West Side. [That] side sees four-to-six hours of sunlight a day. You don't need to know a whole lot about plant growth to know you need a certain amount to thrive.”
“Basically, Mother Nature is our challenge this time of year,” summed up Heggie. “Luckily, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment has bought us quite a few toys: grow lights, covers, a heating system below the surface. We can fight back, but Mother Nature definitely limits what we can do.”
When man fights nature, there is usually only one winner.
“To me, it's not perfect,” admitted Heggie. “Everyone seems to be happy, but I'm never supposed to be as the groundskeeper. I'm always searching for perfection. We're going to keep going forward; it'll get better and better as the season progresses.”
The players are not bothered by that lack of perfection.
“There is an understanding that the field isn't going to be what it is in June or July,” said TFC captain Michael Bradley. “The grounds crew has done an amazing job, in terms of the amount of time and effort, to make sure it's in the best possible condition.”
“You deal with conditions; we dealt with the cold in Colorado,” said Bradley. “We're excited to get back here, in our stadium, on our field, in front of our fans, and start to establish again what it means to play here. Everybody is excited about the games we're going to be playing here over the next stretch.”
The process of getting the pitch ready has been a four-and-a-half week effort.
“You can't grow it through December and January,” said Heggie. “You'd just be butting heads with nature. Every day and night it was underneath a tarp that inflates. We can go underneath, mow, do everything we need to do underneath. When we see the light starting to affect the grass, we'll drop the cover, put the grow lights on top, accompanied with different fertilizer regimes, different seeding rates, different types of seeds.”
“The grass has lived underneath that cover – it's like an inflatable greenhouse,” explained Heggie. “It's not ideal trying to grow it inside, but we use top of the line everything to give the best product we can. It looks pretty good for February 26.”
Heggie and his crew are no strangers to this battle, having seen TFC go deep into December, another cruel month for grass in Toronto, the last two years. Long days in such circumstances are the norm.
“That has all started again,” said Heggie. “A lot of days, consecutively, and a lot of long days.”
His overall assessment: “For February, I'd give it an A+.”
“[Otherwise] I'm a harsh critic, I'd give it a C,” continued Heggie. “But there are other stadiums that would take that any day of the year.”
“If I had that in July or August, Bill Manning and Tim Bezbatchenko wouldn't be very impressed with me, but they're very happy right now, based on what we've gone through,” smiled Heggie. “Two weeks ago we had a two and a half feet of snow, to [now] have that is pretty incredible.”