Groundskeeper confident that Toronto FC and Argos can share BMO Field

Toronto FC head groundskeeper Robert Heggie has a message to any TFC fans gritting their teeth over sharing BMO Field with the CFL Argonauts.

“I’ve always said there’s one person in Toronto that should be worried about this and it’s me. And I’m not overly worried about it,” Heggie said.

“So if I’m not worried, everyone can just simmer down a little bit and let’s see what happens in June,” he added.

Toronto FC opens at home May 7 while the Argos kick off their regular-season schedule June 23.

Like Snoop Dogg, Heggie knows his grass.

In 2015, he was Sports Turf Canada’s turf manager of the year. Heggie, who studied horticulture and turf grass management at the University of Guelph, has been TFC’s head groundskeeper for seven seasons and has spent two years preparing for the advent of the Argonauts. He’s talked to peers around the world to pick their brains, from officials at Wembley Stadium to those at MLS and NFL venues.

He acknowledges there will be growing pains, especially in a season with a compressed soccer schedule due to the stadium renovations. Weather, particularly rain around Argo games, will also complicate matters.

But Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns TFC and operates BMO Field, has seemingly spared no option to ensure the ground-sharing works.

“We knew from Day 1 this was going to be a very sensitive subject,” said Bob Hunter, MLSE’s chief project development officer. “Two of the three (MLSE) owners own the Argos, they’re very sensitive to it and Larry (MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum) in particular has been very focused on ensuring we have a very very high-quality TFC pitch.”

A new turf field — the third to grace BMO Field since artificial turf was removed in 2010 — is set to be installed this week, weather permitting. It has a much thicker base and should settle in much quicker and tighter.

It comes in rolls 60 feet by four feet (18 by 1.2 meters) and is laid on 12 inches (30 centimeters) of sand, which covers the heating and aeration system underneath.

“For all argument’s sake, it’s a two-acre golf green,” said Heggie.

The surface starts as Kentucky bluegrass. Heggie’s crew will add in perennial rye grass, which grows better in cooler temperatures as the season wears on.

A backup field is ready and waiting in the Hamilton area if any portions of the BMO surface need replacing. It could be installed within 36 hours — and played on 24 hours later.

A third option is a hybrid field, with natural grass growing around artificial roots to strengthen the turf. That was touted by former MLSE boss Tim Leiweke as the answer to grass problems. But it is less flexible because it is hard to replace, in part or in total.

A hybrid field can also harden.

“We’ve had this (TFC) team for about two years now so I know what they like,” Heggie said, “And I know they don’t like it hard.”

More than $1 million has been invested in grow lights to help keep the grass healthy. BMO Field finally got an exemption to use pesticides, which golf courses, lawn bowling clubs and cricket grounds already had. Heggie says he tries to avoid using them but they are another part of his arsenal.

Heggie has turned to Supaturf, an Australian company that specializes in line-marking systems, for the paint need to lay down the lines for football and the ability to remove them. It’s not cheap but it is effective, says Heggie.

“They won’t tell you the Caramilk secret, obviously on how it actually works,” he said.

But the paint solution contains water and malt, among other ingredients. A remover product that reacts to the paint will be sprayed immediately after the game.

There may be some slight ghosting the next day but it will disappear after that, he says.

In Heggie’s office at the Kia Training Ground, a calendar above his computer shows both the MLS and CFL games. There is plenty of white between the two — enough time to prepare the pitch, MLSE believes.

Repairing damage caused by the Argos is “basic agronomy,” Heggie said. Seeding, watering and fertilization.

The grass will be kept a little higher for CFL games than MLS contests, if timing permits. That grass cut will help remove vestiges of the paint and Heggie says football players like a little more cushion in the grass.

Heggie also has some cosmetic cheats up his sleeve, like a green pigment and green sand that groundskeepers commonly use to touch up the color as needed.

As part of the ongoing renovations to the stadium, two positions for the football goalposts have been installed. While just a yard or so apart, it means the football lines won’t be laid down the same place every game.

All this work and new grass will likely still have to be installed in advance of next season. Heggie says the grass will suffer after being covered for weeks in the lead up to the planned Winter Classic.- Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press