In the summer of 1991, runner Al Howie ran across Canada from St. Johns, Newfoundland (approximately 1,400 km [870 miles] northwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia) to Victoria, British Columbia in 72 days, 10 hours and 23 minutes.
On February 19th, 2022, nearly 31 years after that historic journey, the Halifax Thunderbirds stepped back on the floor inside Scotiabank Centre to battle the Georgia Swarm after 71 days since their last home game in front of their most faithful fans.
That means that Howie could have (almost) completed his epic cross-country trek by foot in the same amount of time the Thunderbirds had between games inside their home arena. Thinking about it from that perspective, that’s a long time.
During that time, the Thunderbirds were not able to put on an incredible show of lacrosse for the people of their still newish city. It was 71 days that the Thunderbirds couldn’t connect with their ever-growing fanbase. They are trying to build a winning culture of professional lacrosse in a city and a region of Canada that is not accustomed to this type of high-level athletic performance regarding Canada’s summer sport.
Instead, following numerous delays and postponements due to provincial COVID restrictions in Nova Scotia, the Thunderbirds were forced to play “home” games at the FirstOntario Centre, the home floor of their Eastern Conference rivals the Toronto Rock, in Hamilton, Ontario.
To make matters even more strange, the Thunderbirds would not only be playing away from their actual home floor, but they would also be playing with no fans in attendance, something they oddly did once earlier this year against those same Rock but as the away team in mid-January. Thunderbirds defender Graeme Hossack recalled how unusual it was to play in a fan-less arena for the first time in his professional career.
“It was definitely an interesting game,” Hossack said. “When they introduced the teams, it was quiet and even when we scored a goal – we would normally quiet the crowd or deflate them – it was just quiet. There was no energy coming from the crowd because no one was there. We had to create our own noise and energy from the bench.”
Despite all the unique and challenging hurdles the Thunderbirds faced in that contest against the Rock, they still squeaked out a 14-13 overtime win. Almost remarkably, the Thunderbirds would also win their two versus the Riptide and Wings, which left their Head Coach Mike Accursi very proud of his team’s effort adjusting on the fly to these unusual changes.
“It’s a lot different playing with no fans and also not in your home arena,” Accursi said. “I think the guys did an amazing job adjusting to playing on a different turf, in a different arena, in a different city and with no fans; that takes quite an adjustment to be able to fight through that type of adversity.”
Regardless of the Thunderbirds’ success while away from Nova Scotia, nothing beats being in your home city playing in front of the fans who love you the most.
As forward Kyle Jackson mentioned, despite only 3,000 fans being allowed to be in attendance inside Scotiabank Centre up to March 14th, the capacity crowd made their presence felt from the get-go and helped the team to their most prolific offensive showing of the year with 15 goals scored.
“Despite there being a capacity limit of only 3,000 fans allowed in the stands – even being spread out – those 3,000 fans felt like way more than 3,000 fans,” Jackson said. “That’s a testament to the fanbase we do have in Halifax, showing up under any circumstances and making that environment feel like home.”
While the Thunderbirds head back on the road this weekend, this time to Philadelphia to face the Wings, they will be back in “The Nest” in Halifax for three more regular-season affairs throughout March and the beginning of April.
With the team having an opportunity to spend more quality time on their home floor, Hossack noted that the Thunderbirds will continue to improve their quality of play. At the same time, they also go back to ingratiating themselves among the community of Halifax.
“Now we have the chance to get familiar again with what we’re used to back in Halifax,” Hossack said. “Winning at home is one of the important things we need to do if we want a home playoff game and have the advantage of playing in front of our own fans.”
A playoff appearance would be nice for this organization, especially since their last attempt at a postseason spot was nixed because of the canceled 2019-20 season. But, whether this year, the following year or even the year after that, Accursi emphasized that this team is built for a long-term winning future.
“The seeds that we’re planting this year [in our 2nd-year in Halifax] are going to grow our fanbase for years to come,” Accursi said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. When you’re trying to build something up in a market where lacrosse isn’t usually in the forefront, it can be difficult to grow something. I think we’ve planted good roots and now we have to continue to let it grow – I think that Halifax is a very special place.”
Jackson added that this team is crafted to be in contention every time they step on the floor, no matter how spread out games are or even on back-to-back nights.
“We’ve been very blessed with the team that we have, the management that we have, the coaching staff that we have, the training staff that we have, to put the best product on the floor,” Jackson said. “So when we do go out there, whether it’s a week, a month, or even on back-to-back nights, we’re able to put on a great show for the fans in Halifax.”