A black bear wanders on to the field while Team Alberta warms up. Picture: Gareth Williams

IT'S A footy backdrop as breathtaking as a packed stadium on Grand Final day. The Calgary Kangaroos contest the Sherrin on a footy oval at the base of the glorious Canadian Rocky Mountains near the world-famous ski town of Banff.

The image below was taken by amateur photographer and player Gareth Williams, and is his entry into the AFL Footy Focus Community Photo Competition.*

An action shot of a game at Canmore, near Banff. Picture: Gareth Williams

Gareth has played since 2002 and got into sports photography during a few absences from the field as a result of injury. 

"I started taking sports photos after tearing my ACL. It was a big disappointment as I missed playing for Team Canada in Australia at the AFL International Cup. I found photography kept me involved and engaged on the sidelines," Gareth recalls.

The Kangaroos have been playing AFL in Calgary, Alberta since 2002, welcoming all players, regardless of prior experience. They have a sister AFLW side called the Calgary Kookaburras and boast a healthy Auskick program.

Players collide during a game between the Calgary Kookaburras and the Seattle Grizzlies. Picture: Gareth Williams

In addition to having players travel to Australia to compete for their respective countries in the AFL International Cup - the tournament geared towards the development of the sport outside its country of origin - the Kangaroos compete as a team within other parts of Canada and the United States.

With several other sports in the area competing for the use of real estate, in the early years it was difficult for the side to secure grounds to play.

"The club has an amazing group of board members who managed to secure two full-sized footy-specific grounds in Alberta that we play on today," says Williams.

AFL match coverage in Canada is also growing, which in turn is driving the interest in players wanting to join the team.

"Some new players come to the club with extensive knowledge of the game, solely having gotten into the game watching it on TV," Gareth explains.

The percentage of the men's team now is roughly 50 per cent Aussies with the rest being made up of Canadians and ex-pats from places like England, Ireland, and New Zealand.

"When the club started in 2002, I think a big driving force was to have a social club for Australian ex-pats, but it's grown to just be a social club for everyone in the city," Williams said.

"Popular sports like soccer and basketball here don't have much of a social aspect. I find the club generally attracts people who like to travel and who are social and curious about other cultures."

A Calgary Bears player looks to shoot out a handball. Picture: Gareth Williams

The bond the game brings to all who play it is evident in the extra-curricular activities the club helps to drive.

"Recently, some of the alumni players have started a road cycling group and we also have cross-country and downhill ski days, hockey games and fitness competitions" says Williams.

Due to the transient nature of much of the population in the area, however, the biggest problem for the club has always been the recruitment and retention of players. Aussie ex-pats come and go with their work visas for the ski fields, and often move back to Australia after a few years with the club.

Then good old COVID-19 arrived.

The club had been able to attract enough players to have two full sides fielded in Calgary. Alas, the pandemic has now reduced participation, cut off the Aussie backpacker recruitment and prevented the club from travelling to other cities to play other teams.

But for people like Gareth, it's just a matter of riding things out and knowing that playing is only a small part of the reason he loves his club.

"The highlights for me have been all the enduring friendships I've made over the years. Most of my closest friends are from the Calgary Kangaroos. Alumni players will tell you the same, they continue those close friendships even after they move back to Australia."

The club has always been an important support for ex-pats and now for those unable to travel home due to the pandemic, it's a key social connection to their homeland.

The Calgary Bears and Banff Bisons in action. Picture: Gareth Williams

In early 2021, the club raised over $18,000 for bushfire relief. They have also championed getting Australian-owned businesses based in the area, such as pie makers and brewers, involved in the club too.

On Grand Final Day, which normally starts at around 10pm in this part of Canada, the locals will gather at a venue to watch the match and stay together until closing time which generally is around the 2am mark.

"The event would normally involve just about every Australian person in Calgary coming out to watch," says Williams. 

The club is hoping, restrictions pending, that this year will be no different. For ex-pats currently unable to make the long journey back to Australia, the Calgary Kangaroos continue to provide that little piece of home.

Do you have your own community footy photo to share? Enter #FootyFocus21 here for your chance to shoot with AFL Chief Photographer Michael Willson.  

*While overseas entries are currently out of the running for the prize, we still love to see them!

The Calgary Bears take on the Calgary Cowboys in Calgary. Picture: Gareth Williams