THUNDER BAY -- Home is becoming a difficult place to define for the Thunder Bay Chill this season.
Is it Chapples Park, their location but subject to less than ideal field conditions on the natural grass when the weather is wet? Or is it Fort William Stadium, which has a reliable artificial turf playing surface but lacks the atmosphere and familiarity of their normal venue?
That dichotomy was visible this weekend as the Chill were able to play at Chapples Park on Friday before being forced to move their Saturday contest to Fort William Stadium after early morning rain rendered the pitch at Chapples Park unplayable.
Thunder Bay fell 2-1 to the St. Louis Lions on Friday in their regular season home opener, their first game on grass this season. They rebounded to defeat the Springfield Demize 1-0 the next night across the river.
Switching between two fundamentally different surfaces is creating headaches for the reigning Heartland Division and Central Conference champs who are sporting a two-game losing skid following Friday’s home loss on grass and last weekend’s 3-2 road defeat to WSA Winnipeg on turf.
“We’ve played the last four games on turf where the ball rolls differently. (Friday) night’s game was a little heavier, it was a little soggy,” head coach Tony Colistro said following the loss.
“We’re a little smaller and lighter so it slowed us down.”
It was apparent throughout the match that the Chill (1-2-0) were having difficulty adjusting to the different surface.
Passes that were normally routine were not controlled and players were constantly fighting for traction on a field that was playable but in rough condition.
Colistro observed some players getting fatigued more than usual as the game came down to the wire with St. Louis scoring the go ahead goal with less than five minutes remaining.
“I saw some heavy legs. It’s just getting used to it and not being able to train and play on our field isn’t giving us the advantage we’re looking for,” he said.
The Chill rebounded the next night to pick up the shutout victory on the turf, but the players insist that’s not where they would rather be.
Veteran defender Zetroy Robertson said the turf takes much more of a physical toll and is less forgiving than the grass.
“A lot of guys hate playing on the turf,” Robertson said. “It’s a little harder on your ankles and knees. Most of the players, myself included, we love to slide tackle and I get bruises all over my body so I hate playing on the turf.”
The ball also reacts much differently on turf than it does on grass.
New keeper Mitchell Thorn learned that the hard way. Thorn has played the game on grass throughout his entire career, until arriving in Thunder Bay this season.
One of the biggest adjustments has been getting familiar with the different surface.
Thorn had a rough go in his first regular season contest on the artificial surface, conceding three goals in the road defeat at Winnipeg.
“There were a few times in Winnipeg I threw for a counter attack and the ball just held up and then we got under pressure. The next half I threw it with a bit different wind conditions and it rolled away,” Thorn said.
“It’s so difficult when you’re not used to it.”
He responded better in his call to duty on Saturday, recording his first clean sheet with the club.
In addition, the players prefer the intimacy and environment that Chapples Park gives them.
It feels much more like a home venue.
“You play a lot better when the support is right there. When you’re playing at Chapples you feel like the crowd is on the field with you,” Robertson said. “(At Fort William Stadium) it’s a little further and we like getting the crowd involved.”
Colistro appeared before city council last month asking for increased access to Fort William Stadium and a long-term plan to make Chapples Park a viable site. Officials with the team have suggested adding turf at Chapples with a source saying the cost would be around $1 million.
The Chill host the Des Moines Menace for a pair of games this weekend with both matches tentatively scheduled for Chapples Park.
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