REST is a four-letter word Robert Heggie knows little about. From dusk until dawn, he has little else but growing grass — turfgrass, that is — on his mind. Legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt once sang “For the Sake of the Song.” If Heggie had penned the same tune, he would undoubtedly rename it: “For the Sake of the Turf.”
Canada’s 2015 sports turf manager of the year looks after one of Canada’s most recognized professional athletic fields, as well as a $26 million outdoor training complex. When we connected this past summer, talking hands-free as he dodged traffic and deals with the inevitable jams along one of the busiest highways in North America, Heggie reflected on the past 18 months. What a long – but rewarding – journey it’s been. There aren’t many stadiums that try to pull off soccer and football at the same time. This is one of the biggest challenges Heggie and his team face.
Where it happens
“It’s been a hell of a couple of seasons … it doesn’t feel like it’s stopped,” says the head groundskeeper for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE). “The expectations of our soccer team are the highest in the league,” Heggie comments. “We have three very good soccer players on TFC [Toronto Football Club], and if they don’t like the conditions of the grass, we hear about it very quickly.”
A “hell of a couple seasons” is an understatement to describe what the BMO Field turf boss and his crew have accomplished over the past 365 days — keeping BMO Field in pitch-perfect condition, despite hosting three different professional sports events and resodding the field in the middle of an unpredictable and cold Canadian winter.
I caught up with Heggie in a small window he had to chat; it’s not like there are any real breaks in his business anymore. We talked about his journey from the University of Guelph to his early career in the golf industry to his current role. While shuffling between the Kia Training Ground (the practice facilities for TFC of Major League Soccer) at Downsview in North Toronto to BMO Field along the Lake Shore — home field for both TFC and the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League (CFL), he took time to share his recent experiences and lessons learned. “I used to have downtime,” he jokes. “That doesn’t happen anymore!”
Besides BMO Field, Heggie and his turf team are also responsible for maintaining the Kia Training Grounds, a 14-acre facility where TFC practices and future stars get their start playing for club teams at the site of a robust youth soccer academy. The training grounds represent a $21 million investment made by Toronto FC and MLSE in the future of Canadian soccer.
One wonders how a golf nut became the turf boss of an MLS and CFL franchise. Like many career journeys, there was a little method, a little madness plus a wee bit of luck. As a teenager, Heggie started in the golf industry, working at a driving range. Later, he ended up working at Rattle Snake Point (a ClubLink golf property in Milton, Ontario, just west of Toronto). In 2006, Heggie decided to attend the horticultural program at Ridgetown College. He then followed this up with a turfgrass management degree at the University of Guelph (Ontario).
While in school, Heggie interned at the luxurious 54-hole resort Sandy Lane in Barbados, where he was born. While there, he had the chance to work on the construction and grow-in of The Green Monkey course — a Tom Fazio creation carved from an old stone quarry. Then, the recession hit the Caribbean island (a little later than the rest of the world), and Heggie ended up back in Canada, wondering what to do next. He saw an ad looking for help to work on a new professional soccer field, and he was intrigued. As the son of a Scotsman, he was a fan of the sport. So, Heggie decided to roll the dice. What began as a full-time hired hand for North Gate Farms for three years led to his current head groundskeeper position with MLSE, a role he has held for the past eight years.
TURF CONVERSION 101
Flash back to the fall of 2016, when Robert Heggie was tasked with a Herculean feat. In a matter of three days, Heggie lead his turf team into overdrive mode: converting the turf used on BMO Field from hosting the Grey Cup (Canada’s equivalent of the Super Bowl) to top turf conditions for an unanticipated Toronto Football Club (TFC) playoff game. Not only did they have to make sure the sod was repaired due to traffic and compaction, they had to ensure the paint lines from the football game could not be seen during the soccer game. This led to lengthy paint trials. According to Heggie, this was one of his biggest hurdles to overcome in the quick turf turnaround.
As if this rapid conversion wasn’t enough, imagine constructing an outdoor hockey rink on your field to host the NHL’s annual Winter Classic; then tearing it all down and resodding the entire field in the middle of Canada’s coldest season to make sure the turf was ready to host Toronto FC in its MLS home opener. That’s exactly the scenario that Heggie faced in early 2017.
Sodding in the middle of winter certainly posed its share of challenges. “It was ambitious,” Heggie admits. “Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment came to me and said, ‘We’re going to have a hockey game January 1 and TFC has its season opener planned for the end of March.’”
The sod was ripped out right after the game, on January 2. To solve the issue of tight timelines, the veteran groundskeeper relied on an inflatable grow cover and supplemental lighting to keep the turfgrass happy and healthy, despite the subzero temperatures outside. He’s also lucky to have one of the most sophisticated SubAir systems installed (at both facilities) and a budget that allows him to use some of the higher-end fertilizers (Floratine).
“I controlled most of the growing conditions of the plant, so it didn’t matter what time of the year it was…it was a complete microclimate,” he explains. “We kept the sod in a greenhouse until we were ready to harvest it.”
“I say that I may have an unlimited budget, but this comes with a certain level of expectation,” Heggie concludes. “Not one blade of grass can be out of place … the expectations are that it’s always perfect.”
Like most head sports turf managers, Heggie says without his crew, which includes one head assistant and two second assistants, a couple of interns and six other employees, keeping the grass growing and up to the professional athletes’ and MLSE’s high standards would be impossible.
“I wouldn’t have the job if I didn’t have my crew,” he says. “Six of my 10 guys went to the University of Guelph for turfgrass management. They understand that growing grass is not a 9-to-5 job; it’s a lifestyle … a blood contract! Some weeks are 40 hours and some weeks are 75, but you do it because you love it.
“No one person knows everything,” he adds. “That’s what makes us successful. Each member of the team brings a whole lot of knowledge to the table along with a whole lot of grit. I love to show people what amazing things grass can do if you want to invest in it.”
Heggie is lucky that his employer sees the value and importance of investing in the turf. “They are not afraid to do it right, as long as they are seeing the return,” he explains.
These days, the turf leader can breathe a little easier; he only has two MLSE franchises to worry about with no additional special events planned on the horizon. Still, he doesn’t see getting much rest or downtime anytime soon. He jokes that he sees his turf team more than his family. But, he keeps on keeping on all for the sake of his passion for the business and for growing the highest quality turfgrass for the athletes of today – and tomorrow – to enjoy.