No CPL team saw their stock rise in 2020 more than HFX Wanderers FC, whose magical run at The Island Games in PEI ended in a CPL Final appearance, just one year after finishing at the bottom of the league table.
In recognition of that incredible turnaround, Wanderers coach Stephen Hart was honoured on Thursday night with the CPL’s Coach of the Year award.
The veteran manager received the Owl trophy, designed by experienced carver Palaya Qiatsuq of Nunavut, putting a cap on a remarkable season for the Trinidadian coach.
Hart beat out fellow nominees Bobby Smyrniotis of Forge FC and Mista of Atlético Ottawa, both of whom he acknowledged as similarly worthy candidates for the award.
“In all honesty I’m flattered, I was nominated along with two fantastic coaches in Mista and Bobby, and to get coach of the year, especially with all Bobby’s achieved, is quite flattering, really,” Hart told CanPL.ca. “For me it’s always difficult to have an individual award within a team sport, and really credit should go to the players first, because they bring the product to the field. And then of course my staff, because I didn’t do this alone.
“A lot of people have to be thanked, but I am very very appreciative of it.”
Still, Hart oversaw an impressive rebuild over the past year in Halifax, putting together a squad with 15 of 22 players new for 2020, and he formed them into one of the most entertaining attacking squads in the CPL with their high-energy, counter-attacking style. The Wanderers ultimately finished in second place in both the first and second rounds of The Island Games, winning four games and losing just three (including a heartbreaking 2-0 defeat in the Final to Forge FC).
Hart is the most experienced manager in the CPL, having been in coaching for over 20 years. He was in charge of the Canadian men’s team from 2009 to 2012, after about a decade working for Canada Soccer as an assistant and as coach of various youth sides. He also managed the national team of his native Trinidad and Tobago from 2013 to 2016 before returning to Halifax — where he’d both played and coached for the Saint Mary’s University Huskies — to lead the Wanderers upon their founding as part of the CPL.
Wanderers forward Akeem Garcia, winner of the CPL’s 2020 Golden Boot, heaped praise on his coach, whom he credits with giving him an opportunity with his first professional contract outside of his native Trinidad. The two had been familiar with each other for years; Hart gave Garcia his first cap with the Trinidad and Tobago national team, after the two encountered each other as opponents at the 2013 Concacaf U-17 Championship (while Hart was working for Canada as an assistant).
“I’m very grateful for him. He’s just one of those coaches that you can talk to, he always makes sure you’re in the right space of mind to train. He always does everything possible to make you comfortable,” Garcia told CanPL.ca.
“Not only is he a coach, he’s also one of those people you look up to as a personal leader. I think all the guys on our team respect him. In terms of coaching he breaks it down for you, he gives you your opportunity to show yourself, express yourself. And he’s also one of those coaches where you know you can be free to show your talent.”
For his part, the Wanderers coach was impressed with the level of coaching across the Canadian Premier League in 2020, which saw two new head coaches take over clubs, and plenty of other sides improve on their inaugural seasons.
“I always knew that we had the quality in Canada,” Hart said. “Just like the young players, the coaches just needed that platform. All the coaches have been around, have been working very hard for Canada Soccer, and of course with the introduction of Ottawa, Mista — who played here for Toronto — has returned to contribute to the sport here. So I’m not surprised that the quality is very good.”