Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay, Ont., soccer programs struggle for space as national teams' success soars

Soccer programs in Thunder Bay, Ont., can’t accommodate all the kids who want to play, something expected to get worse in the future, owing to the popularity of Canada's national teams.

Local soccer programs filling up, players placed on waitlist as city seeks funding for new facility

The Thunder Bay Chill under-16 boys' team scrimmages at the Thunder Bay Tournament Centre, soccer’s makeshift home for the past two years as the city awaits a response on federal funding for the proposed multi-sport indoor turf facility. (Jon Thompson/CBC)

Cameron Pytyck says that from the opening kickoff on Sunday to the final whistle when the Canadian men's national team beat Jamaica 4-0 to qualify for their first World Cup appearance since 1986, the mood at BMO Field in Toronto was "electric."

As Pytyck and his ex-pat friends who grew up playing soccer in Thunder Bay, Ont., made their way through the celebrations in Toronto's streets and bars, their conversation turned to what the event, as well as the Olympic gold-medal run of Canada's women's team, could mean to soccer culture back home.

"This needs to be a big, big, big almost slap in the face to everyone who doesn't think people in Thunder Bay, where we're from, needs facilities and needs places to play. Because this is Canada now," Pytyck said. "We need to be able to have places where kids can play and grow up, and be and do exactly what Canada did here, and be a part of that."

Tony Colistro, executive director of Thunder Bay Chill, said the club's spring soccer programs are taking names for wait lists after enrolment filled on the first day of registration. Including youth, men's and women's competitive teams as well as recreational leagues, 2,000 young people are enrolled in soccer programs, he estimated. That's nearly as many as the 2,300 playing in local minor hockey associations.

'They know soccer'

Colistro said soccer programs can't accommodate all the kids who want to play, and that will only get tighter in the future. 

"We always knew soccer was a participant sport because of the affordability," he said. "In terms of who can play, we talk about this influx of immigrants who come from all over the world. They don't come with hockey skates because that's not what they know. They know soccer." 

After a year that saw Lakehead Express double its enrolment, the program rebranded itself as Lakehead Superior Rush this month. Coach Olivia Czipf said joining the Rush club will transform their part of the soccer movement, as opportunities now exist to train and play with Rush-affiliated clubs all over North America and Europe.

Canada's Christine Sinclair, left, shown at the Tokyo Olympics, is a legend in the sport. Young women in Thunder Bay are looking to find more opportunities to play in the northwestern Ontario city. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

"With the Canadian women's team improving every year and speaking up for women's equality in sport, I find our younger age groups, kids are more inspired to come play soccer and have aspirations to play at that higher level," Czipf said.

"As kids are getting more inspired by the women and men's soccer teams, we're giving them the opportunity now to achieve those dreams."

Both clubs say the potential for growth has been limited by available playing space since the sports dome on the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition grounds collapsed in 2016.

City seeking funding for new facility

Thunder Bay city council voted against building a $37-million indoor multi-use indoor turf facility a year ago, and the soccer community has been in a holding pattern ever since. 

The City of Thunder Bay is still waiting on an application it filed to Infrastructure Canada last July that, if successful, would contribute over $22 million to the proposed multi-sport turf facility.

Kelly Robertson, Thunder Bay's general manager of community services, said the city anticipate it will hear a response by November.

The city is embarking on a new round of community consultation next week to consider whether needs have changed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Stakeholders will be asked for direction, should the federal government reject the city's application. In the event the government approves the city's request, Robertson wants to test the appetite for a non-profit or private company to operate the facility. 

Canada's Cyle Larin, left, celebrates after scoring against Jamaica during a World Cup qualifying match at BMO Field in Toronto on Sunday. (Evan Mistsui/CBC)

In the meantime, indoor soccer players have been playing on carpet at one of the two hockey rinks at the Thunder Bay Tournament Centre.

Fifteen-year-old Peter Mork, whose under-16 Thunder Bay Chill team won the Ontario Indoor Cup in February, said the facility is less than ideal — the floor is hard on players' joints and the ball frequently goes out of play in a facility that's not designed for soccer. 

Although he can see the adults have yet to work out a solution to the lack of space while interest in the game surges, Peter said the success of Canada's national teams is so infectious that it shows young players in the city that they can play on that level.

"It will get better eventually, and eventually there will be a place to play," he said. "It will just be a matter of time, so keep playing." 

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