With his bushy beard and familiar headgear no Toronto Arrow has been more recognizable on the rugby pitch than Mike Sheppard.
So when Sheppard recently announced he was retiring from the game it was a favourite of many leaving the game.
“I’ll be 35 come December,” he told Yorkton This Week. “I’ve been very fortunate to play since 2018 all of it injury free.”
Sheppard added that realizing he had avoided knee and ankle injuries and concussions for years, it was “as good a time as any” to walk away from the sport.
It was also a case Sheppard said he could look back on his career with a degree of satisfaction -- earlier in the campaign Sheppard played his 50th game with the Arrows.
“I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to,” he said, then adding an MLR championship would have been nice.
Sheppard retires from the Arrows as the franchise leader in appearances (59), carries (424), and dominant tackles (30). His 10 tries are the most amongst forwards in club history.
From Brampton, Ont. he added 1,971 carry metres, 556 tackles (85.5 per cent completion), 14 defenders beaten, 11 offloads, six linebreaks, and four breakdown steals over his five years with the team in the MLR era.
He served as club captain throughout both the 2022 MLR season and the team’s 2018 exhibition campaign.
“I really believe we would after the first year when we got to the semis (finals),” he said.
But the Arrows have struggled since then, often tripped up by injuries that Sheppard has managed to basically avoid.
Looking at the 2023 season as an example Sheppard said he’s never been involved with a rugby team where so many players were sidelined.
“It was injury after injury,” he said, adding rugby is obviously a rugged sport, and even practices can cause bumps, bruises and more serious hurts, but this year the Arrows seemed overly prone to knocks that left them sidelined.
“It was unfortunate with the talent we had,” he said.
Sheppard also played internationally for Canada earning 11 cups after making his debut against Kenya in November 2018, starting five matches and scoring one try. He was part of the team qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and was duly recognized for his in-form play by earning a spot on Canada’s Rugby World Cup roster.
This year with the rest of Canada’s rugby fans Sheppard is watching the current World Cup from France on television, as Canada missed qualifying for the first time.
“I watched every single World Cup Canada was in growing up and fortunate to play in the last one (in Japan),” he said, adding while it’s frustrating Canada is not in France he is confident Canada is “doing everything they can to make it back.”
With that as a goal Sheppard said he still firmly believes the MLR is an important part of growing and improving the sport in both Canada and the United States. He said the league simply provides North American players with a visible entity to aspire, and for those making squads invaluable high-level experience.
Upon Sheppard’s announcement Bill Webb, Toronto Arrows President and General Partner made the following statement.
“For every big moment in our club’s history, Shep has been there and has played a vital role. He captained our side as we navigated our 2018 exhibition campaign, fully believing in this project and this organization. He was alongside us at the podium when we were officially announced as an MLR expansion team. He was a key part of our thrilling seven-match winning streak to earn a playoff spot in our first season. He led us through the excruciating 2021 pandemic season spent entirely abroad, and captained us for our long-awaited return home in 2022. Through thick and thin, Shep has been there.”
Within days the Arrows announced that Webb had died.
“It was pretty devastating when I heard that news,” said Sheppard, adding it was mere days earlier he had talked to Webb about his retirement.
In a message from the Arrows the team noted, “Bill was our trailblazer – the father of the Toronto Arrows. He was widely respected and admired for his passion, his vision, and his leadership.
Simply put, there would be no ‘Toronto Arrows’ without Bill Webb. We are profoundly grateful to him for the opportunities he provided, the strength of character he showed, and for demonstrating that we should never be afraid to follow our dreams.
Bill truly was a great man. He was wise, passionate, generous, personable and friendly. A proud Canadian, he cared deeply about the Arrows organization, the team’s fans and his home city of Toronto. More importantly, he was a gentleman, a family man and a friend to so many.
He treated the players and staff who worked for the team like family. He was proud to have helped bring professional rugby to Toronto and Canada, and fiercely believed in rugby as a tool for social good.”
Sheppard said in his case his career was entwined with Webb’s desire to see the Arrows come into existence.
“I owe Bill everything for the last six years,” he said. “. . . I’ll never repay Bill for what he did for me.”
But, Sheppard said he will be trying, starting as a season ticket holding Arrows fan, and then by being willing “to do anything I can to help out” the Arrows moving forward.