HALIFAX, NS – Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Peter Schaale and Cory Bent of the HFX Wanderers had already lived and played together for years.
They were roommates through their time playing for the CBU Capers from 2016 to 2019. After the Wanderers took Bent first overall in the 2019 CPL-U SPORTS Draft, he moved in with Schaale in Halifax. The latter had just finished his rookie year in the Canadian Premier League.
That’s where they were at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020: training in Halifax in preparation for the 2020 CPL Season.
Let alone being unable to travel outside of Nova Scotia at the time without being subject to restriction, Schaale and Bent could not travel (and still have not travelled) to see family at their homes in Germany and England, respectively. On top of the few years they roomed in Cape Breton, you can add another 17 months or so to that total.
“I mean, you’d think you’d hate someone after spending a lot of that time with them,” Bent chuckled, recalling experiences with Schaale on and off the pitch since coming to Nova Scotia. “He’s a really great friend to me. We’ve had a lot of big experiences together. We come from similar situations where we began playing football at home, went to Cape Breton, then came [to Halifax]. Our paths are remarkably similar. That’s how connections are usually formed.”
“[The team] and I were buzzing when he got drafted by the Wanderers, one year after me,” Schaale said of Bent’s selection in the 2019 draft. The six-foot-three defender was HFX’s first ever draft pick, taken fifth overall in the 2018 draft. “We’re really, really close, on and off the pitch. He’s a very good guy to have around in your everyday life. I couldn’t be happier to be here with him.”
Indeed, they have shared experiences. Since the pair joined the Capers in 2016, the team hasn’t lost an AUS championship. Each of them has scored an AUS Championship-clinching goal, not that they’re holding a contest between each other or anything.
One of those years, 2017, saw them win the country via penalty kicks over the Montreal Carabins. The following season, they lost in the championship game’s second extra-time period to those same Carabins.
Schaale and Bent represent the first two first-round picks in HFX’s history.
In their first CPL year together at the Island Games last summer, they helped their team to yet another national championship run, falling just short to Forge FC in the final.
But Bent, the five-foot-six forward, has yet to do one thing Schaale already has: play in front of his home fans. That’s what has him most excited for game one in Halifax, when asked.
“It’s not really up for debate. Halifax has some of the best fans in the league,” Bent said. He attended a few Wanderers games in the 2019 season. He fell in love with the stadium and atmosphere “immediately. The fans have been supporting us through the last few years. It’s only right we get to come home and give them as much of a performance as we can, in front of all those who can attend.”
Schaale hasn’t played in front of Wanderers fans live since 2019 and their home match Aug. 2 against Atletico Ottawa has him excited to end that wait.
“They make a huge difference,” Schaale said of the home crowd at Wanderers Grounds, the club’s downtown home pitch. Both he and Bent refer to them as the “Twelfth Man” when discussing the Haligonian crowds. “They push us to perform better on the pitch. I’m looking forward to being in that environment again, hearing them chanting and enjoying themselves.”
Key cogs on the “new” Wanderers
Indeed, it’s been a while since having that home-crowd advantage in Halifax. Almost two years, in fact, have passed since the last kickoff at Wanderers Grounds, a 1-1 draw against Pacific FC on Oct. 9, 2019. Yep, 663 days separate those two dates.
Thus, this will be the fans’ first live look at this new Wanderers team. A lot can happen in two years, even in a pandemic. After finishing tied for last in the 2019 CPL season, they put together an impressive showing at the Island Games, making it all the way to the championship match.
The team is looking slightly different and younger this time around too. Several U SPORTS players and alumni now have spots in the lineup, making for one of the league’s youngest squads. HFX also boasts the most internationals in the CPL with seven.
Yet, they have become close-knit and mature according to Bent and Schaale, with their experiences in the bubble environment helping foster connections with one another.
“We spend lots of time with each other. We live close together in Halifax and we hang out a lot,” Schaale said. “Everyone gets along and the group is tight-knit. It’s good that you are friends with most of your teammates because that will help on the pitch eventually.”
That youth and team bond has been put to the test this season. Several players have been sidelined with injuries through the eight games in the Winnipeg bubble, including Schaale and Bent. Schaale has only appeared in two contests this season due to an ankle injury.
But on the bright side, many different players are getting into the lineup, showing the importance of the team’s ability to fight through adversity and succeed with depth, especially among the younger, less experienced players.
“I think coach Stephen Hart has proven he can recognize U SPORTS talent and bring it in. The newer guys have proven themselves as well,” Schaale said. He pointed to the early season play of 2021 HFX draft picks Stefan Karajovanovic and Kareem Sow. The former and latter are fifth and sixth on the team in respective minutes played this season, while Karajovanovic leads the squad with 18 shots.
“The U SPORTS draft gives you an opportunity here,” Bent said. “We’re all grateful and humble for this opportunity. We don’t feel entitled to anything and that’s the way we play. Everybody works for each other and that’s how we get results.”
He added he’s driven to play hard for his teammates because of how well he knows them, including Schaale and the U SPORTS guys he’s crossed paths with over the years.
“When you go through the same experiences as these guys, like all the guys I’ve played against [and with], I respect them. We bond over those experiences,” Bent said.
The bubble environment encouraged that further bonding with the team contained to just themselves. COVID-19 has kept people apart, as has been the case with Schaale and Bent living a continent away from family and friends for months. But along that journey came stronger bonds with new people, like teammates who met in the bubble. And of course, more time to build on friendship with an old buddy and roommate.
“Sometimes we get a bit sick of one another,” Schaale said with a laugh. “But we’ll tell each other if that happens. We’re open in our communication.”