Members of Hfx Wanderers FC consider the mental-health impact of the pandemic as they begin another unusual pro-soccer season

R

ecently arrived in Winnipeg, players and coaches with Hfx Wanderers FC are busily preparing for the start of the 2021 Canadian Premier League professional soccer season. The Wanderers begin play on Saturday, battling Pacific FC in the league’s Kickoff bubble.

Each team in the bubble will play eight games (32 total). Once the Kickoff concludes on July 23, teams will return to their home markets for the second half of the season, playing 16 games against teams in their region, plus an additional four games against other teams.

“We have to look at the season in a number of different ways,” says Wanderers’ head coach Stephen Hart. “We would like to maximize the number of points we can get in these eight games because then you have the second objective, which is to try and place yourself in a position where you’re in the final four for playoffs … We are looking at this part of the bubble as a preseason, but we want to maximize the points.”

Last year, the Wanderers almost brought the league championship back to Halifax.

After a last-place finish in 2019, the Wanderers reversed their fortunes in the P.E.I. bubble. They reached championship final for the first time in the franchise’s young history, losing 2-0 to Hamilton’s Forge FC.

Andre Rampersad. Photo: Submitted

“Coming super close to winning the championship last year was a very good step for us,” says captain Andre Rampersad. “Coming into this year, there are a lot of expectations from people on the outside that we can do a lot better. This year, we will take the opportunity to try to win it all—reach the finals and give it our all. The expectations from each player are very high, and we keep each other accountable.”

The pandemic has taken a toll on the Wanderers’ physical health, including conditioning and training, but also on mental stamina.

“It’s really tough, but you look around, and it’s not just you that’s going through this,” Rampersad says. “It makes it a lot easier when you have friends around when you go into lockdown. You have a roommate or friends you can chat with to get your mind off of it.”

Goalie Christian Oxner, a Haligonian, credits friends and family with helping him get through those tough days, especially during the latest lockdown.

“I am one of the lucky people,” he says. “I still live at home, so I am around my family and my brothers every day … We were lucky last year that we still got to practise, and we had something to strive towards and this year too. Being able to have people around like my brothers, my family, and to see my girlfriend and things like that is what helped me maintain good mental health.”

Morey Doner. Photo: Submitted

Fullback Morey Doner joined the Wanderers after suiting up for York United FC. Hoping to seize the momentum he enjoyed in his first season with York, his mental health took a downward turn when he could only play six games last year.

“It’s important to talk about the mental side of sports; a lot of people don’t talk about it,” he says. “I had a lot of anxiety, and was pretty emotional about the whole situation: just when are we going to play? When is there going to be a season again? And it’s difficult. At my age, you want to play games and want experience, and we all as footballers want to do what we love.”

Doner’s anxiety led to depression. Recognizing he needed help, he turned to a psychologist.

“When you are going through a tough time, you should be honest with yourself about it,” he says. “Then you attack it, and it makes you stronger. I looked up to a lot of players, and they go through those things as well. It’s only going to help my game now that I am training every day, and we have games. I feel like I’ve come to a really important part of my life. Definitely, it’s made me a better person.”

Recognizing that we all deal with our mental health in different ways, Doner believes it’s essential to lean on others for support when they need it the most. Furthermore, the fullback has shared his experience with other players to guide them through difficult times.

“A few individuals, I always know they open up to me, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of or guilty about,” he says. “Football … is our job, so we want to wake up every day and do what we love, so it’s difficult when that gets taken away. It’s good to have conversations you can embrace because it will make your relationship a lot better and stronger.”

Stephen Hart. Photo: Submitted

For his part, Hart learned a lot from the team’s first bubble experience in P.E.I. He’s using used that experience to build empathy.

“The one thing we recognize from being in the last bubble is helping the players understand that as a unit, as a team … we have to help ourselves through this scenario,” he says. “Be supportive, be understanding, understand that some players are going to handle it better than others.”

Typically, teams bond through preseason play and training together. Gathering limits and public health rules have hindered that over the last 18 months.

“That was the tough part,” Hart says. “A big part of the preparation for a team is the ability to play games and what we call a match fitness. We weren’t allowed to do that, so we’re going to have to take time in the league to do a lot of that.”

When players can’t play, self-doubt sets in, but Hart believes his crew draw strength from each other.

“There is a genuine togetherness about this team,” he says. “The new players are going to learn that, but there’s a genuine sort of brotherhood on this team. It solidified itself last year. There’s a good belief in each other…  They have their arguments, but at the end of the day, they all support each other and pull each other through difficult times, and they enjoy the good times. Even though we are in the business of winning and competing, it’s also something you want to enjoy.”

Rampersad gets his motivation from teammate and attacker Akeem Garcia, who pushes him to jog on the street or do a home workout. Oxner enjoys a rapport with the team’s goaltending coach.

Other players do extra workouts on the field to maintain their conditioning, so they are ready to go on game day.

In Winnipeg, the Wanderers will miss their boisterous and supportive hometown fans.

“A big part of the game is the fans,” Hart says. “It’s the game-day experience, the interaction with fans … But we’re no different from anybody else that’s in the league at the moment. Again, we have to learn to deal with it.”

When he signed his contract to join the Wanderers, Doner knew he would not be starting to play the first part of the season in Halifax. He’s visited the city before, and is looking forward to getting to know the fans.

“To have fans there will be a big push for us, especially with the 28-game season,” he says. “It is a long season, so the support of the fans is going to be important too to finish the season strong.”

Doner believes the team is poised to challenge again for the league championship.

Christian Oxner. Photo: Submitted

“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do in my career,” he says. “I was never on a winning team or one that knows what it takes to win. This year, with this group of players, we have exactly what it takes to win, and we have that little fight, the grit that that is championship mentality. It’s going to be interesting for us to start playing on the field together.

As a Haligonian, Oxner is keen to perform again for his hometown fans.

“Playing professional soccer is something I thought I would never have a chance to do,” he says. “To be able to do it in Halifax where I grew up, where I have had tons of people support me throughout my years—it means the world to me … The way people have treated the team, supported the team and have been there for the team through the bad times and through the good times. We love them for it, and we hope very soon that we can share everything together.”

Halifax Magazine