BURNABY — Back in the fall of 1965, when the foundation of Simon Fraser University was still settling on its fertile new grounds atop Burnaby Mountain, it likely wouldn’t have been an uncommon sight to see Lorne Davies and Gordon Shrum taking a stroll together across a bumpy parcel of land which, over the years, has come to be known as Terry Fox Field.
You can almost imagine their conversation, spit-balling ideas back and forth on what the future might have in store for a start-up university sports program determined to think outside the box.
And while Davies, the school’s first athletic director, and Shrum, it’s first chancellor, would undoubtedly leave their pioneering mark on Canadian university athletics by making SFU’s teams the first from this country to play an exclusive league schedule against U.S. opposition, their dream of having all of it unfold within a centre-piece on-campus stadium would unfortunately not see fruition in their lifetimes.
Some 56 years later, the significance of just such a mental snapshot — figuratively faded, creased and greying — does nothing but add to the appreciation factor in these final few days before the official opening of the school’s gleaming, new $20 million SFU Stadium at Terry Fox Field.
Recently completed and as yet without an official ribbon-cutting date as per provincial government health regulation updates, the facility includes deluxe seating for 1,823, including 1,200 as part of a covered grandstand area which also houses a media press box, suites, scouting booths, washrooms and many other amenities.
Yet the most striking aspect of the stadium — set this season to play host to the school’s football, soccer, and track and field teams — is how comfortable it all seems to rest within its original sports-specific area of the campus… almost like it was always meant to be.
“When you build something new around an existing structure, the goal is always to have it fit nicely with its surroundings,” said Simon Fraser’s senior director of athletics and recreation Theresa Hanson. “And it just fits in that space.”
Had Davies, who passed away in 2015 at age 84, been here to see it, he would no doubt echo those sentiments.
And as not only the founding father of Simon Fraser athletics, but the university’s first football coach, Davies would no doubt have walked lockstep with everyone else on the campus in marvelling at just how seamlessly the new covered grandstand has replaced the massive slope of the gigantic grass berm, which for two generations-plus became the very definition of utilitarian.
“For the location, and for how they adapted it to the flow of the hillside and now how you can see the field… that is a classy, classy piece of construction,” said Chris Beaton, not only a charter member of SFU’s 1965 football team, but of course, the longest serving head coach in program history (1983-2005). “And the seats are just so comfortable.”
Jay Prepchuk, Simon Fraser’s record-setting quarterback who took his snaps from 1979-82, and this season has returned as the team’s quarterback coach, couldn’t agree more.
“Oh my God,” Prepchuk said just before the team took to the field for a fall camp practice Thursday. “When I was a player here, we would all look up at the hill and say to each other ‘This seems so simple’ and ‘Why can’t we do this.’ I can remember watching soccer games back then, too, sitting on the grass (berm) and thinking it was so obvious because it was so beautiful.”
That was the rub.
Everyone knew how uniquely special the view was, but without even the barest of creature comforts (like chairs) from which to enjoy them, coupled with the constant threat of the elements negated almost everything about the experience.
It was like admiring a work of art by peeking through a key hole.
But now, you take a seat anywhere in the grandstand portion and with that, the view of Terry Fox Field at once becomes a perfect panorama.
Since the stadium project’s groundbreaking ceremonies took place in early March of 2019, Hanson admits to a gut feeling that the finished sight lines carried the potential to be spectacular.
“I had a miniature model of the stadium in my office, and we knew that there wasn’t going to be a bad view in the house,” she said. “What we didn’t know, until we sat in the press box and in the stands, was the extent of that view. We just said ‘Oh my God’. It was so clear. So fabulous.”
FOR STUDENTS, A HOME AWAY FROM HOME
After decades of trying, the stadium project finally gained traction after a student referendum was held in 2012, one which finally gave the thumbs-up approval for not only the new stadium, but as well, a new student union building.
Nine years later, with September classes drawing ever near, Hanson says she is most happy these days that the huge community which is the Simon Fraser student body has been able to play such a defining role in transforming the possibilities of their own campus experience atop Burnaby Mountain.
“What’s most important to say is that this is a student project,” she began, going on to describe the new infrastructure as “…a legacy from students to students.”
Indeed, as it pertains to the stadium project, the SFU Student Society provided $10 million, an amount matched by the university to meet its total $20 million price tag.
Delayed a full year by the global pandemic, the completion of both projects has dove-tailed to give a dynamic new feel to the student community, something that will be very apparent when the campus opens in the fall.
“Students have been away from our campus for a year-and-a-half, and when they left there was a lot of construction going on,” Hanson continued. “When they come back, and they’re walking east to west, there’s going to be a brand-new residence building, a brand-new stadium, as well as brand-new student union building.”
A VIEW TO THE POSSIBILITIES
Of course the multi-sport capabilities of SFU Stadium at Terry Fox Field make it the home of not just the football program, this year coached for the first time by Mike Rigell.
The SFU men’s and women’s soccer teams, coached respectively by Clint Schneider and Annie Hamel, and the track and field program headed up by Brit Townsend, are the other prime tenants.
Townsend, whose program has been a pipeline to the Olympics for so many student-athletes over the years, sees the impact of the new stadium as all-encompassing, including a sense of branding that is more commensurate with the calibre of program she has been built.
“I am so excited to have a real stadium for it’s professional look, because being high-performance is what I have always stressed in my program,” Townsend explained. “And a facility like this just shouts out that we have made this happen, that we can showcase our athletes in a way that they deserve for soccer, for track and field, and for football.
“We’ve basically been benches on the track or sitting on a grass bank for so many years,” she continued of the spartan past that the majority of outdoor sports have endured over the school’s history.
“This speaks to what we’re trying to promote at SFU… an environment of high-performance, and that’s everything from the competition we offer in the NCAA, to sports medicine, to academics… just the whole package.”
Townsend adds the opportunities are now enhanced in terms of the potential to host many of the local track and field community’s most traditional meets.
Men’s soccer coach Schneider is delighted on a number of different levels, including the huge leap forward in creature comfort the program’s dedicated alumni and fan base can now take advantage of following a sport played in a region where cold and rain are a constant companion.
It’s a sentiment shared by the women’s program as well.
Schneider is also quick to acknowledge, that among soccer-playing venues within its own NCAA Div. 2 ranks, that SFU Stadium at Terry Fox Field would sit in a class of its own.
“Very few D-2’s have a dedicated (soccer) space,” began Schneider, whose team enters the 2021 Great Northwest Athletic Conference season as the No. 1-ranked team.
“If you look at what we have, it’s comparable to the top of division one for soccer-specific stadiums.”
Adds men’s assistant coach Josh Smith, a John Oliver grad who began his SFU playing career in 1987: “I was down at University of Washington a couple of years ago and they had built a soccer-specific stadium. Ours is much nicer.”
The most noticeable comparison between the two is the lack of covered seating at the Div. 1 Pac 12 school in Seattle.
Smith, who played his first three seasons for SFU at a time when its home games were staged across town at Swangard Stadium, marvels at the transformation which has occurred at the Fox Field site.
“Back then we only trained on Fox Field so we used the ugly grass hill to run up in training,” Smith said. “Everybody always said that we needed to put something there so that we wouldn’t have to keep running up that hill. At the time, we didn’t even think about putting in a stadium there.”
PERFECTING THE HOUSE THAT LORNE BUILT
As part of the stadium project, Simon Fraser football has a new locker room space that surely sits among the very best in NCAA Div. 2.
In many ways, it can be seen as a central gathering point for not only the team, but a place to celebrate the history and tradition of SFU football.
Upon entering the space, the latter becomes immediately clear simply by observing the way the program has honoured its late quarterback Bernd Dittrich, who passed away almost 12 years ago at the age of 21, and is remembered by all through his framed SFU game jersey and a life-size photo where he barks out the signals under centre.
Both sit prominently on the wall upon setting foot in the team’s new locker room complex.
Hanson adds that the outfitting of the football locker rooms and taping areas signalled the first phase of the new the Lorne Davies Complex Renewal Project.
“In this master plan for the LDC renewal, we had to look at how we could use this space the best because we have 200,000 square feet in the whole Lorne Davies Complex,” said Hanson of the athletic department’s traditional space within the the university.
And what will be perhaps the most significant end result of the $18-20 million project?
“Every varsity team will have a new-and-improved locker room,” said Hanson of an endeavour which itself has already been in the planning for three years.”
That said, renovating a 50-year-old building like the LDC comes with its own set of challenges. To that end, a seismic upgrade will be first on the docket when the renewal project turns its attention to the LDC’s main spaces, sometime likely around the spring of 2022.
“…THIS PLACE IS KIND OF MYSTICAL”
Chris Beaton remembers that by 1966, the university’s second year, the as-yet-unnamed Terry Fox Field had become the football team’s grass-covered practice field, yet he says neither he nor any of his teammates could have ever envisioned, from those humble beginnings, an actual stadium rising in their midst.
Over the decades since, there had been numerous attempts to retro-fit the site with a permanent stadium grandstand, including one decades and decades ago that rumour says had something to do with the City of Burnaby and a cheque for a million dollars.
Finally, what was fact and what was fable no longer matters.
Men’s soccer will christen the stadium Monday when it plays host to the Fraser Valley Cascades. Women’s soccer then hosts Fraser Valley on Tuesday in its first live-game run in the stadium. Both games begin at 7 p.m.
And football debuts at home Sept. 18 (6 p.m.) against Central Washington.
“It’s really going to become a gathering point, and not just during games,” Hanson begins. “When I spoke earlier of the transformation of the campus, it’s pretty amazing what this will do for our student experience across our campus.
“When you add it all up, the one word that comes to mind for me is vibrancy,” she added. “And all of it is happening here, on the top of a mountain.”
And it’s at the top of that mountain, in the midst of watching the competition, where we have best learned how to appreciate nature and all that it unfurls, from sheets of rain, to banks of fog, to stunning sunsets… all, often times, over the course of a single game’s duration.
Now, the best part is that the view can be enjoyed in comfort.
“Honestly, the sight lines are as good as it gets,” says Schneider. “You can romanticize about this place because it is so distinct. When we have weather, like when the fog rolls up, it just makes this place kind of mystical in a lot of ways.”
Finally, after over a half-century of waiting, there’s a few thousand ‘front-row seats’ ready and waiting to give you all the proof you need.
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