Frisco’s Cook describes journey to Major League Rugby stardom
SUMMIT COUNTY — Thirteen years before he made his debut as a member of the Glendale Raptors Major League Rugby club on Saturday, Frisco native Connor Cook faced off against his first professional athlete: Colorado Avalanche enforcer Scott Parker.
Back during the lockout of 2004-05, a then-teenaged Cook was a huge fan of the National Hockey League club, which won a Stanley Cup championship with Parker four years prior.
And during a Summit Lightning youth hockey practice, Parker dished out the kind of physical play and toughness Cook has since embraced as not only a professional rugby player, but as a college football player as well.
“He wasted me into the boards,” Cook recalled of his childhood self with a laugh. “He was there to talk to us, and out there on a drill I took a puck by the left circle and he hip-checks me right into the boards.
“That was pretty cool, actually.”
More than a decade later, the now 27-year-old, 6-foot-3, 215-pound Cook is hoping to dish out his own Colorado-born and Hawaii-bred form of punishment as an enforcer for the Glendale Raptors professional rugby club in their debut season in Major League Rugby.
Saturday, seven teams from across the country — including the greater-Denver-based Glendale Raptors — embarked on the first official season for MLR. In their first game Saturday, the Glendale Raptors beat Austin Elite Rugby, 41-26, at Infinity Park.
The league has attracted the best talent from across North America while also recruiting some of the best overseas talent via the five international players-per-club rule. And it has a television agreement with CBS Sports Network, which will televise 13 matches.
For Cook, becoming a professional rugby player for the equivalent of his hometown team has been a long and winding road spanning playing pick-up games with his brothers Collin, Danny and Ian in Summit County, to learning a tough brand of rugby versus the native islanders of Hawaii, to playing for an unexpected collegiate rugby national powerhouse at Arkansas State University.
But his love for competition did start in Summit County. It’s where he enjoyed playing hockey on the pond near his grandmother’s house up the street from Frisco Elementary, it’s where he loved to ski at Copper Mountain Resort and it’s where, as the second oldest brother, he developed his all-around athletic skills while taking on his siblings, each boy separated by two years.
“It was awesome, you know, as a kid you’re hanging out with your friends a lot, but we didn’t necessarily always have to do that because we had each other,” Cook said. “Even if just playing basketball in the front yard, it was always competitive. We always pushed each other to be better.”
Cook and his brothers grew up in Frisco before moving to Hawaii when Cook was entering the ninth grade. With the relocation to the tropical island, hockey took a backseat to learning rugby — a sport the islanders prided themselves on.
With respect for his native competition, Cook credits the Hawaiian rugby players he played against and learned from in high school for helping to mold his physical, efficient-tackling style when he plays back row for the Raptors these days.
When Cook first got into the sport in Hawaii, the self-described late bloomer was smaller than much of his high school-aged competition, at just 5-foot-4, 120 pounds at the age of 14. But backing down wasn’t an option, and learning to perfect his style and technique due to the size disadvantage was crucial to his development.
“It was probably the best thing that could happen to me, because that style of rugby and learning how to get hit and hit people that are bigger than me, I think was a huge part in my success so far,” Cook said.
After his rugby and football days as a placekicker, defensive end and outside linebacker at Honoka’a High School, Cook’s next stop was at Redlands University in California, where he played football.
But before his time at Redlands was up, he received a call halfway through his sophomore year regarding the opportunity to play rugby at, of all places, Arkansas State. He had heard from a coach from his high school days at the Waimea Rugby Club that the Red Wolves were continuing to build their collegiate powerhouse, one influenced by the revered Blue Bulls Rugby Union side from South Africa.
With international talent from across the globe, Cook felt the opportunity provided him a melting pot of rugby education. It not only made him a better player — he garnered collegiate All-America honors — but the Red Wolves also captured USA Rugby 7s National Championships in 2012 and 2013 and earned a USA Rugby D-1A 15s National Championship appearance against Brigham Young University in 2012.
Fast forward six years, and Cook is now a Centennial-based strength and conditioning specialist and performance coach after relocating back to the Denver area in September 2016. And it was just two months after that relocation when a previous non-Major League Rugby incarnation of the Raptors invited him to a combine. His showing was good enough that Cook has stuck with the club as it transitioned from semi-professional exhibition games last spring to the launch of their official inclusion in Major League Rugby on Saturday.
And when the physical back-row player suits up for the Raptors, expect the childhood Avalanche fan to channel the kind of toughness, self-sacrifice and attention to detail he admired as a kid from Avs greats Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Ray Bourque, Adam Foote and, perhaps his favorite, Dan Hinote.
“He was just a savage,” Cook recalled.
“I’m so fortunate and blessed to be a part of this,” he continued. “It’s kind of awesome, we are kind of pioneering a professional sport here in the U.S.”
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Peter Arnold’s playing career ended after high school, but his time on the ice continues a few decades later. A longtime USA Hockey official and new Aspen resident, Arnold is searching for the next generation of hockey referees among the youth ranks here in the Roaring Fork Valley.