April 3, 2024

Celebrating “one of the great leaders in sports,” Jim Hopson (1951-2024)

As a youngster, Jim Hopson routinely sneaked into Taylor Field to watch his beloved Saskatchewan Roughriders in person. 

He was eventually handed the keys to the franchise, serving for a prosperous decade as the community-owned Canadian Football League team’s first full-time President-CEO. 

A lifelong love of the Green and White — demonstrated many times over as a player, executive and staunch supporter — is being fondly remembered as tributes pour in for Hopson, who passed away on Tuesday at age 73 after a three-year battle with Stage 4 colon cancer. 

Even while tackling health-related challenges, including multiple bouts with COVID-19, the unshakably cheerful Hopson continued to be conspicuous at Roughriders-related functions. 

That was a contrast to the early days, when he did his utmost not to be noticed — at least by the stadium’s security staff as he quietly and mischievously navigated his way past the gates. 

Upon being inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a builder in 2019, Hopson referred to himself as “a kid who grew up in Regina and used to sneak into Taylor Field and watch games.” 

That was in the era of Ron Lancaster and George Reed — Canadian football icons who eventually became teammates, friends and fellow members of the Hall of Fame and SaskTel Plaza of Honour. 

“I pinch myself,” Hopson said, upon reflection, while taking stock of a journey that was as inspiring as it was, by his own description, improbable. 

“This is a great honour for a kid from north Regina who never in his wildest dreams believed he would ever play football, let alone play with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and then get the chance to be the President of this storied franchise,” Hopson said in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech on Aug. 9, 2019. 

Hopson was synonymous with success as a player and President with the Roughriders. 

A CFL offensive lineman from 1973 to 1976, he was part of a team that reached the Western Conference (now West Division) final in each of those four seasons.  

His playing career concluded on Nov. 28, 1976, when Saskatchewan faced the Ottawa Rough Riders in the 64th Grey Cup Game. 

The following spring, Hopson announced his decision to retire as a player — despite being only 26 — and become a full-time educator. 

“It was a tough, tough decision,” he said in a 2004 interview with the Regina Leader-Post. 

“I got traded to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers after the ’76 Grey Cup. The deal never went through because I wouldn’t report, but I was traded for Merv Walker, who was a defensive back. 

“My daughter had just been born. I was teaching in Lumsden. I sat down and sort of did an analysis and decided, for a whole bunch of reasons, that I should concentrate on education.” 

The owner of a Bachelor of Education degree (with distinction) from the University of Regina and a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Oregon, Hopson taught high school before becoming a principal, and eventually, the Director of Education with the Buffalo Plains/Qu’Appelle Valley School Division. 

The next step, professionally, took Hopson back to his roots with the Roughriders following 31 years in scholastic circles. 

On Oct. 20, 2004, he was named the team’s President-CEO, making a seamless transition from the role of alumni representative on the team’s Management Committee (now the Board of Directors). 

Over the previous 20 years, the Roughriders had been intermittently profitable while also receiving desperately needed monetary infusions from the telethons of 1987 and 1997. 

Early in Hopson’s tenure as President-CEO, the Roughriders announced a net profit of just $455 on their 2006 operations. A season ticket or two tilted the balance between a profit and a loss, at a time when a comfortable nest-egg — accumulated on his watch and maintained under the sound management that has followed — was simply a dream. 

“The credit has to be given to the Board that envisioned that things could be different,” Hopson reflected in 2018.  

“People like Tom Robinson, Garry Huntington, Graham Barker, Paul Hill and others said, ‘We’ve been doing this for nearly 100 years and we’ve got the best fans in the world, but we can only turn a profit of $400. We need to look at this differently. We need to start thinking of this as a business, and a business that can be profitable, rather than as a charity or social club or something.’ 

“It was a real shift in thinking — a real shift in culture.” 

Hopson formally assumed office on Jan. 1, 2005 and, over the next decade, presided over a remarkable era and evolution in the history of a team that was always close to his heart. 

In Year 1 of the Hopson regime, for example, Taylor Field’s first video board — the SaskTel MaxTron — was installed. 

In Year 2, Taylor Field was renamed Mosaic Stadium, with the blessing of Neil J. (Piffles) Taylor’s family. 

As demand for tickets swelled, Hopson was at the forefront of the installation of new seating as capacity, once in the 27,000 range, ascended past 33,000. 

“He focused in on the team and the facilities and made changes to little things that meant a lot, like investing into the locker room and investing a little bit into the stadium and investing into the fan experience and investing into marketing,” said Craig Reynolds, who has been the President-CEO since formally succeeding Hopson on March 1, 2005. “Those are things that just hadn’t been done before, for lots of good reasons. 

“Jim just brought a different attitude and he brought a belief to the organization that ‘we can have success here.’ Prior to that, every once in a while you’d believe that, but there wasn’t a consistent belief. He brought an attitude change here, which was exactly what this organization needed.” 

With Hopson at the reins, the Roughriders advanced to four Grey Cup games — those of 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2013. 

Although a championship eluded him as a CFL player, he shared in two Grey Cup victory celebrations as an executive. 

The championship season of 2007 was a catalyst for an elevated interest in the football team, with perennial seven-figure profits ensuing and empty seats becoming scarce. 

The successes of 2007 were also the springboard to high-level discussions about a new or upgraded stadium. Those talks culminated on July 14, 2012, when it was announced that a new Mosaic Stadium would be constructed as part of a partnership between the Roughriders, the City of Regina and Province of Saskatchewan. 

But much remained to be accomplished at the historic facility, where the 2013 Grey Cup Game was played.  

Hopson ultimately shared in the Roughriders’ first home-field championship victory, a 45-23 conquest of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Nov. 24, 2013. 

“I wanted our fans to say it wasn’t good enough just to have a team,” Hopson, who stepped down as President-CEO in 2015, told Riderville.com shortly before entering the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. 

In his view, it came down to shifting the mindset from an attitude of simply being “happy to have a team” to building a “championship team” and “championship organization.” 

Mission accomplished. 

Under Hopson, the Roughriders received Paragon Awards for both marketing and community involvement, in addition to being named one of Saskatchewan’s top 100 companies and top 20 employers. 

Regionally, the Roughriders received awards for their corporate culture and were recognized with an Honorary ABEX Award. 

It was all part of becoming the CFL’s flagship franchise — a goal Hopson established when he became the President-CEO. 

“We became that not because of me,” he said this past February when the Roughriders’ football-operations auditorium at Mosaic Stadium was named in his honour. 

“Right from the beginning, in every leadership role I’ve had, I’ve believed, ‘If you want to get somewhere fast, you go by yourself. If you want to get somewhere and do something, you take a lot of people with you.’ Well, we took a lot of people with us, and they made the difference for us. 

“We didn’t get here because of one person. We got here because of a whole bunch of people.” 

At one point, there wasn’t a whole bunch of money. 

As Hopson noted in his autobiography, Running the Riders, the team’s net assets grew from minus-$213,963 (in 2015) to a surplus of nearly $37 million (by the end of the 2013 fiscal year). 

“Jim was absolutely the right person at the right time,” Reynolds reflected. “He just brought an attitude and a belief and he focused in on the right things.” 

Reynolds, who joined the organization as Chief Financial Officer in 2009 and became a Senior Vice-President in 2013, made it a priority in his introductory media conference as President-CEO to celebrate Hopson as “one of the great leaders in sports.” 

Accordingly, Hopson was named the 2014 recipient of the CFL’s Hugh Campbell Distinguished Leadership Award. Campbell, an elite Roughriders receiver in 1960s, was one of the players Hopson watched as a youngster at Taylor Field. 

To cite just a few more of the countless accolades received by Hopson, he was presented with the Saskatchewan Centennial Medal (in 2005) and Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012). 

His good name is also celebrated at Hopson Park, part of the Hawkstone neighbourhood in north Regina. 

Additionally, he received the Toastmasters International Communication and Leadership Award (2011) and the U of R Alumni Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2015). 

He was also inducted into the Junior Achievement Saskatchewan Business Hall of Fame (2009), Plaza of Honour (2018), Regina Sports Hall of Fame (2022) and Mike Ditka’s Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund Hall of Fame (2022). 

During the Gridiron Greats induction speech, delivered during a gala event in Chicago, Hopson noted that he was 13 months into a battle with Stage 4 colon cancer. 

He also thanked his wife, Brenda Edwards, and referenced her as his “best friend” and “caregiver.” The couple exchanged vows on Dec. 7, 2010 and treasured the time they spent together at their homes at Last Mountain Lake and in Mexico. 

Hopson and his first wife, Marilyn, had two children — Carrie (born in 1975) and Tyler (1978). Jim and Marilyn were married 34 years. 

Another key figure in Hopson’s life — his mother, Mabel — is in her early 90s. She was often praised by an endlessly proud son as “the hub of the wheel in our family.” 

Her husband, James Hopson, was only 55 when he passed away on Nov. 13, 1985. 

James and Mabel had two sons (Jim and Brian) and three daughters (Carol, Wendy and Bonnie). 

Jim Hopson was born on March 1, 1951. 

Residing on 500-block Scarth Street, he attended Highland Park and Imperial elementary schools in Regina, where he also honed his gridiron skills in the Queen City Minor Football League (a precursor to Regina Minor Football). 

He later enrolled at Thom Collegiate and starred for three seasons on the offensive and defensive lines with the Regina Intercollegiate Football League’s Trojans, wearing No. 60. 

Hopson was in Grade 10 at Thom when, on Nov. 26, 1966, Saskatchewan won its first Grey Cup title. 

“I was 15 years old,” he recalled in 2007. “There was a party at the north end of Pasqua Street. When the Riders won, we drove down to Albert Street to be part of it. 

“All the horns were blowing. Everybody was there to have fun. It was a spontaneous celebration. People were hanging out of car windows. 

“I was sitting with my girlfriend — she wasn’t my girlfriend for much longer — and I was almost more interested in impressing her. 

“Who would have thought I’d be here as a Roughrider?” 

Upon graduating from Thom in 1969, Hopson joined the Regina Rams. The junior football powerhouse was then coached by Gordon Currie, who eventually became a fellow Canadian Football Hall of Famer. 

As a rookie with the Rams, Hopson was named a Manitoba-Saskatchewan Junior Football League all-star defensive tackle in 1969. 

Next stop: Canyon, Texas. 

With assistance from the Roughriders, he received a football scholarship from West Texas State. It was an abbreviated stay, though, as he returned home to Regina following the winter semester of 1970. 

“It was a big jump to make, but I was playing second-string,” Hopson told Leader-Post Sports Editor Bob Hughes in 1974. “It’s just that it was such a high-powered school with such a tremendous emphasis on football. My education was more important.” 

While maintaining a high academic standing in the Faculty of Education at the U of R, Hopson rejoined the Rams and — resplendent in a No. 61 jersey — helped them win Canadian junior football titles in 1970 and 1971.  

The 1971 Rams’ undefeated season was recognized just two years later with induction into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame. 

In addition to playing for the Rams in 1972, he commuted from Regina to Ceylon while balancing football and a budding teaching career. On top of that, he coached the high school team in Ceylon. 

The inexhaustible Hopson became a CFLer after being named a Manitoba-Saskatchewan league all-star guard in back-to-back years. 

As well, Hopson was honoured as the Rams’ most valuable player in 1971 and 1972.  

The latter year was punctuated by Hopson’s acknowledgment as the league’s top lineman and the Rams’ third consecutive appearance in the Canadian Bowl. He was a team captain in all three of those national junior championship games. 

It was announced on May 12, 1973 that Hopson had signed with the Roughriders. The contract terms, revealed in his autobiography, included an $8,500 rookie salary and a $200 signing bonus. 

Hugh Campbell, incidentally, was a guest coach when Hopson attended his first CFL training camp. 

Hopson was added to the Roughriders’ active roster in September of 1973 and ended up playing in five games as a rookie.  

Suddenly, Hopson was a teammate of Lancaster and Reed. 

“When I had my shot at the Riders in ’73, I was in awe of those guys,” Hopson recalled in 2008. “To sit in the locker room — my locker room was directly across from Ronnie — it sounds so corny, but literally you want to pinch yourself. 

“I’d be sitting there looking at Ronnie and thinking, ‘I’m on the same team as Ronnie Lancaster.’ 

“You kind of lived for the day that (Lancaster and Reed) would accept you. It just kind of happens. You prove yourself and you’re around. Then, one day, George says, ‘Some of the guys are coming over for beer. Do you want to come by?’ And you go, ‘I’m going to George Reed’s house!’ ” 

While clearing holes for Reed and keeping pass rushers away from Lancaster, Hopson made his first CFL start in the Roughriders’ 1974 regular-season opener and was a reliable presence thereafter. 

During each of the next two seasons, he continued to wear No. 52 for the Roughriders while also teaching in Lumsden. 

He eventually transitioned from football to education and back into football, drawing upon his many experiences in athletic and academic settings for the betterment of all involved. 

The result was not one, not two, but three careers of which, once upon a time, he could have only dreamed. 

He played for the Roughriders, spent 30 years in an educational environment, and then rejoined his beloved CFL team at an age when many of his contemporaries were pondering or enjoying retirement. 

Add it all up and it is a legacy of success, underlined by the fact that the Roughriders appeared in the West final in nine of his 14 seasons in the organization’s employ. Only once over that span did the team miss the playoffs. 

“There’s lots of days I think, ‘It’s crazy how life has worked out,’ ” Hopson marvelled in 2019. “If somebody had told me 50 years ago when I was coming out of Thom Collegiate that this would all happen, I mean, no way … no way.”