CALGARY – As champagne corks flew in the joyful chaos, hugging and cheering minutes following the Banff Bears rugby men championship victory – Mark Hooper, one of the heroes of the day, looked at his team of the past decade-and-a-half, celebrating.
With his white mouth guard propped over his right ear, his hair messy after 80 minutes under a scrumcap, Hoops, as he is affectionately known, was holding one of the popped bottles of champagne and smiling.
After 36 years in the sport and 14 years with the Bears, where he wore many hats like president, coach and player, it was now time for him to hang up his boots.
“I couldn’t have left [the Banff Rugby Club] in better hands,” said Hooper. “Stepping away now is not a heartache, it’s bittersweet, but the boys that I’m leaving the club to, they’re just going to run with this now. They don’t need my old body around anymore.”
Whether on the pitch or sidelines, Hoops' voice was always heard and his bruising play was always felt.
And after some dramatic late-match tension, it couldn’t have been a better way for Hoops to end a career on.
The Bears shut down Cochrane's Bow Valley Grizzlies' attack to pull out the 19-15 victory on Saturday (Sept. 10) at Calgary Rugby Union (CRU) park, winning their first southern Alberta championship since 2018, and inaugural Grizzly Bear Cup.
In an extremely close match, where each team fought for every inch on the pitch, the Bears trailed at halftime, 10-8, with penalties being a glaring issue after 40 minutes.
Colourful words and displeasures from veterans on the Bears were being carried to the fans on the sidelines at halftime as the team looked to correct game-play.
"I think it really showed at halftime how upset and angry we were with ourselves and how happy they were," said Hooper. "We expect more from ourselves and they were happy to be up two points and we were like, 'we are not doing ourselves justice yet.'”
Making matters worse, Banff took a blow in the first half when Carter White, who led the team in tries this season, exited the game with an injured shoulder after grounding one and getting Banff on the board. He did not return.
It wasn’t a pretty game, but Banff adapted to what was in front of them in the second half. In a game where points were hard to come by, Banff clamped down harder, and took an 11-10 lead after Malcolm Wilson kicked his second field goal of the day.
Fast-forward to less than two minutes on the clock, and still only one point separated victory and defeat.
Bears vet Jeremy Woodcock broke free from the defensive lines and ran the ball up the pitch, but the Grizzlies desperately stopped the prolific scorer and hauled him down at the 10-yard line.
With the match hanging in the balance, the Bears had ball possession and intense scrums and tackling ensued only a few feet from the try line.
Then the ball found its way into the hands of Michael Fernie, who flipped it to a charging Hooper, rushing in for the biggest moment of the game. It was play the two worked on all year with little to no success – except for when it mattered most. Hoops broke one tackle, marched across the try line and headed toward the post.
“I could hear the boys shouting and celebrating before I even put the ball down, so I made sure I grounded it, and then rolled over and the boys were on top of me and it was just a relief – a release,” said Hooper.
The Bears took a deep breath and were firmly in control at 19-10.
The Grizzlies aggressively came back to punch in one more try in the dying seconds; however, it was too little too late as the final whistle blasted moments later.
Garrett called Hooper’s final try a “Cinderella moment”, a brilliant ending to a long career.
"I cried like a baby afterwards; I couldn't have wished for a better thing," said Hooper. "It wasn't a massive run, it was only about 10 yards, got the try. No complaints.”
After the club spent two seasons away from the pitch due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many veteran players returned to the club in spring for the first time in many years. The old school met new school, mixing in with the younger guys, many of whom came up through Banff’s high school rugby program.
“We pulled a great group of guys together,” said Bears head coach, Lee Garrett. “We don’t get to this point every year, so it’s a special one. This is something we can talk about for the next 10 years.”
Along with the CRU championship, the Bears won the inaugural Grizzly Bears Cup – a friendly in-season mini-series between Banff and Cochrane.
In honour of two late rugby players with connections to both clubs, Ethan Enns-Goneau and Toby Price’s names are ingrained on the trophy.
After receiving the cup, the Bears began chanting "EEG", saluting the long-time Banff local who was tragically murdered last month.
"It's definitely very emotional," said Garrett. "A lot of the boys didn't know we were [putting their names on the trophy], so when it was brought up there was a lot of emotion, so that's what brought that 'EEG' chant on."