- Story and Photos by Bill Currie
Empire Fields and Plateau Sports Park is the lofty and formal name given to Vancouver's newest addition to the soccer scene. Yet, anyone who's ever kicked or carried both kinds of footballs around these parts knows the place by heart. Of course, many will remember the old Empire Stadium that was home to the BC Lions, Vancouver Whitecaps, and classic PNE concerts for three decades. Many also remember how it was left to rot when BC Place opened in 1983. More recently, the site was home to a portable stadium of scaffolding and tarp that allowed the MLS version of the Whitecaps to launch in 2011. Now, the sports fields have been rebuilt and soccer players young and old alike can get a taste of what it might have been like to play amongst the legends of old. After all, it's still Empire.
Empire Stadium was built to host the 1954 British Empire Games (now known as the Commonwealth Games). The BC Lions brought gridiron football to the West Coast when it opened, and the stadium hosted many Grey Cups in its time. Soccer has a rich history at Empire as well, starting with top British and European teams taking on B.C. All-Star sides in the 1950s & 60s. Of course, the Vancouver Whitecaps of the NASL called it home. They were preceded by the Vancouver Royals in 1967 & 68. The original Pacific Coast Soccer League played their final years at Empire Stadium, before folding in the early 1970s.
(Photo Credit: City of Vancouver Archives)
The most historic event to take place at Empire Stadium was the "Miracle Mile" between Roger Bannister & John Landy during the British Empire Games. In 1954, running a mile in under 4 minutes was considered an impossible human accomplishment. Yet, both men had broken that barrier in separate races only months before. The Empire Games in Vancouver would be the first time they would face each other. The Englishman Bannister prevailed, but both he and Landy clocked in below the 4 minute mark. The feat was hailed around the world, and helped put the little known coastal city on the map. The statue of Bannister passing Landy as he looks over his left shoulder has been reunited with the park where the great event happened.
The new park features two artificial turf soccer pitches that are rated among the best in the city. Besides the spectacular view of the mountains, teams also play in the shadow of Playland's legendary wooden rollercoaster. For oldtimers, it's a little reminiscent of the original "Big Dipper" rollercoaster that loomed in the background at Callister Park (aka Con Jones Park) on Renfrew Street.
Despite the spectacular backdrops, the new Empire falls short in one area that's a particular pet peeve. The artificial pitches are encased by the same cookie-cutter chain-link fence you see at virtually every similar facility in the Lower Mainland. It's functional, but it's also ugly, generic and unimaginative. Every field should have it's own local character. Having the same chain-link fence at every park takes away from that.
Despite that shortcoming, Empire clearly has one of the best soccer facilities in B.C. One of the more welcome additions is a large warmup area for teams next to the south turf. Cities should look to incorporate these into every new field they create. There's also a recreational running track, BMX bike park, Playground, Exercise area, Basketball & Beach Volleyball courts to keep everyone in your family happy.
Empire is easy to get to no matter where you're coming in from, with access from East Hastings Street & HWY 1. There's a pay parking lot on the north side of East Hastings Street. Parking might be difficult or expensive when there's events happening on the PNE grounds. There's public washrooms & team dressing rooms, but no concession stand. The closest place for coffee and food is the McDonald's at the corner of East Hastings and Cassiar, with other options farther up the street. There's also a seating area for spectators at the park; very rare in Vancouver and most welcome.
Empire Fields has been missing from the Vancouver sports scene for too long. It's great to have soccer back. More importantly, the Vancouver Parks Board deserves considerable credit for the care and thought put into resurrecting this historic site. It's not just a sports park. It's an active park for all. They got it right, and now Hastings Park is a fantastic destination for everyone the province. That's worth celebrating.