After a 28-year absence, pro soccer is coming back to Atlantic Canada.
Saturday will see HFX Wanderers FC make their home debut in the Canadian Premier League when they host Hamilton-based Forge FC, marking the return of the sport to Halifax for the first time since the Nova Scotia Clippers competed in the old Canadian Soccer League in 1991.
It’s taken a long time and a lot of work behind the scenes, both from local soccer fans and Derek Martin, president of Sports & Entertainment Atlantic, the event production company that owns the Wanderers, to bring the CPL to town. This is their moment, and you can bet they will revel in all of the pageantry of Saturday’s game at historic Wanderers Grounds, located a stone’s throw away from Citadel Hill.
Saturday is also a landmark day for Stephen Hart, as it marks an unusual turn in his coaching career. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Hart, 59, has spent the bulk of his life in Halifax, first as a student and player at Saint Mary’s University, and later playing for and coaching amateur side Halifax King of Donair, named after a local restaurant chain that served donair.
He was named technical director of Soccer Nova Scotia, and soon after became involved in Canada’s national program, coaching youth teams, and taking over the senior team twice on an interim basis before being handed the reigns on a full-time basis in 2009. Hart’s time as Canada’s manager is best remembered for the Reds’ infamous 8-1 loss to Honduras in a World Cup qualifier, a result that saw him immediately resign. In 2013, he took over the national team of his native Trinidad and Tobago, before being fired three years later.
So, Hart has been around the block a few times, and he has a wealth of experience in the international game. This will be the first time he’s coached a fully professional club, though. Hart has taken a circular route to get to this point, but he hasn’t allowed himself to reflect on his personal journey. He’s too busy and focused on getting his side ready for Saturday’s match, especially after his side dropped a 1-0 decision in their CPL opener last week away to Pacific FC.
“I’m always grateful to have been able to contribute to soccer in whichever way I have in this province and the country, but I haven’t given it much thought. When I was first asked to do this job and having the initial discussions, to be very honest, I was tired of the responsibility that goes with being a coach, but Derek was very convincing, and I’m just happy to now be able to play a part to start building something here in Halifax,” Hart told Sportsnet.
After being fired as coach of Trinidad’s national team, Hart was out of the game for two years until last June when he was hired as the Wanderers’ first coach. The timing could not have been better, as Hart admits he was going a little stir crazy.
“I don’t have any hobbies. I like riding a motorcycle along the coastal roads in Nova Scotia, but even that gets pretty tedious after a while. I don’t do well when I’m not involved in soccer,” Hart admitted.
Hart is a Haligonian, albeit not by birth, but rather by choice. He earned a handful of caps playing for Trinidad’s national team and was called up for duty as part of a camp ahead of qualifying for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Instead, he came to Nova Scotia at the age of 20 after talking to fellow Trinidadian and friend Geoff Agositini, who was already in Halifax at the time.
“[Geoff] said I should consider coming to university here, get my education, and that I could play football and experience a new culture. It sounded exciting to me because outside of going to play the odd game in the Caribbean or Latin America, I hadn’t been outside of Trinidad and Tobago for any length of time. That was the charm, the selling point, and I ended up here,” Hart explained.
“Geoff and I had played against each other in Trinidad, so we knew each other. His mother sent newspaper clippings to him in Halifax, and he saw I was selected to the national team camp. It was a big thing for me to be on the national team, so that alone was a big decision to leave after working so hard to get to that point to move abroad.”
Hart enrolled at Saint Mary’s where he was a standout midfielder for the Huskies.
“It was a love-and-hate relationship with Saint Mary’s,” Hart admitted.
“It wasn’t enough soccer for me. I went from being in an day-to-day soccer environment in Trinidad, to playing in a university season roughly two and half months long, and that was a big change. I also had school work to deal with, which took some adaption because I had been out of school for a while, and had a job before. It was difficult.”
Hart eventually headed back to his native Trinidad before eventually finding his way back to Halifax in the late 1980s when his coaching career begun.
“I wanted to give something back to the sport and coach youngsters. I went back to Trinidad, but then I was offered a full-time job to come back to Halifax and I thought, why not? I know the city and the people, so I thought I would do it for a few years and see what happens. Everything started to fall in place and became more consumed in my coaching education, and used what money I had to travel the world and study other clubs and coaches, and take courses,” Hart recalled.
All these years later, Hart is still learning. Aside from building the Wanderers’ roster from scratch for their inaugural CPL season, Hart has also had to learn to adapt his managing style, noting that taking charge of a national team is vastly different from coaching a pro club. In his case, there’s even more work to do because he’s put together a young team, with a handful of his players being 20 years of age or younger.
“With the national team you’re managing men. That’s a lot of what you do. You only have the players for a short period of time, but most of them are already in a very good club environment, so they can pick up what you want pretty quickly. With [Wanderers FC] it’s completely different because, in all honestly, there are very few payers involved with this club that have been in pro environments for long periods of time,” Hart said.
“The big thing is nurturing these young players in terms of how to be professional when it comes to training, and diet, and how they should be living off the field. That’s quite a challenge because a lot of them don’t have much experience along those lines.”
Hart has been encouraged by the growing buzz in the city for Wanderers FC and Saturday’s home opener, and he is hopeful that his hometown will firmly embrace the CPL club in the weeks, months and years ahead.
“I’ve already seen people adopt Wanderers as the professional team in the city and push it along and grow with it. That’s going to be a big part of soccer succeeding in Halifax. Can the fan base grow with the team? Can the team be an inspiration for more local players to get involved and eventually get in the squad itself? I hope it can,” Hart offered.