Jim Hopson, who helped Roughriders win two titles from the boardroom, dead at age 73

He played four seasons with his hometown Saskatchewan Roughriders, but Jim Hopson's greatest contribution to the storied franchise came in the boardroom.

Two of the Riders' four Grey Cup victories were during Hopson's tenure as president and chief executive officer. The Regina native died Tuesday at age 73.

Hopson was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in 2021.

"I'm being very honest when I say I've had an incredible life," Hopson told The Canadian Press in January. "I feel blessed.

"The opportunities I've had to play with the Riders, to play with Ronnie and George (quarterback Ron Lancaster and running back George Reed, both legendary players in franchise history). My education career I'm very proud of and to come back and we had this marvellous run and Grey Cups and all the other things. I wish there was a little bit more of a runway here going forward but you don't get to choose so you have to be thankful for what you have."

Following his diagnosis, Hopson emphasized the importance of early testing.

"If I would've got checked even six months before or a year before for sure, it probably would've been a situation where they could've done something," he said. "What's been gratifying is I've had people reach out and say, 'Jim, I'm in my late 40s and I thought what the heck and got checked and sure as heck I had some growths but they were precancerous.'

"If you can do that and get people to pay attention, that's what I've wanted to do, to leave that message with people and tell them to be positive and try as hard as they can to enjoy every day and every good moment."

Football was a major part of Hopson's life. He played high school football in the city before joining the Regina Rams junior squad.

Hopson, an offensive lineman, signed with the Riders in 1973. He became a starter the following season and played with Lancaster and Reed.

While playing football in 1975 and '76, Hopson also taught school in Saskatchewan. Hopson appeared in the 1976 Grey Cup game with Saskatchewan, a game the Ottawa Rough Riders rallied to win 23-20.

Hopson was dealt to Winnipeg before the '77 campaign but retired to pursue teaching full-time. He'd graduated from the University of Regina with a degree in education and went on to receive a master's degree from the University of Oregon.

"Jim liked to tell people he was just a big, old offensive lineman," said CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, also a former CFL offensive lineman. "That sounded like self deprecation to some but fellow members of the most unique fraternity in sport understood he was really signalling his pride in having blocked for the likes of Lancaster and Reed and the responsibility he felt, to protect his beloved Saskatchewan Roughriders and grow the game.

"His many CFL friends are grateful for his contributions, which have earned him a place in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, as we mourn his passing, and send our sympathies to his beloved Brenda, family and friends."

Following a career in education, Hopson returned to the Riders. He became their first full-time president/CEO, a post he held from 2005 to 2015.

Saskatchewan reached the Grey Cup four times during Hopson's tenure, winning in 2007 and '13. The 2013 championship was especially gratifying for the Riders as they defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 45-23 before 44,710 spectators in Regina.

Hamilton's head coach, Kent Austin, guided the Riders to their '07 title.

"As president, Jim ushered in a new era for our organization that included two Grey Cup championships, incredible financial success, and perhaps most importantly, a belief in Roughrider football that will never fade away," Riders president/CEO Craig Reynolds said. "But more than that, Jim was an optimist, someone who made you feel better by just being around him and a friend to all who knew him."

The Roughriders were also successful off the field during Hopson's tenure. They went from posting just a $455 profit in his first year to securing their long-term future with record savings and investments.

The Riders became the CFL's leader in merchandise sales, outselling the other eight clubs combined. 

Hopson earned respect in football circles for being a direct but fair leader who often emerged from discussions as the voice of reason. And he was humble, choosing to redirect praise to others he felt were more deserving.

Late during his tenure as Riders CEO/president, Hopson was requested to help with contentious collective bargaining talks between the CFL and CFL Players' Association.

"I was very fortunate to become president during a very good time in the Riders history," Hopson said. "The team was solid in terms of football personnel because of what Roy (GM Roy Shivers) and Danny (head coach Danny Barrett) had done.

"The board had things in pretty good shape and the province was going to take off like we had never seen."

During the 1990s, the community-owned franchise appeared to be on the brink of folding with a reported debt of about $3 million. But under Hopson, the Riders began playing before sellout crowds and finishing in the black.

Upon Hopson's retirement, the Riders had partnered with the city of Regina and province of Saskatchewan to build a state-of-the-art open-air facility called the new Mosaic Stadium, which opened in 2017.

Hopson was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2019, an honour that took him by surprise.

"I was speechless," Hopson said. "If you knew me you'd know that's hard to believe."

He was also induction into the Riders' Plaza of Honour in 2018 and the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund Hall of Fame four years later. And Hopson appreciated the continuous support and encouragement he received following his diagnosis.

"The support I've had from friends, family, teammates, it's been incredible and it really did mean a lot," Hopson said. "We find it hard sometimes to reach out to people when they're dealing with this kind of stuff but when you do, it means a lot."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2024.

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