August 15, 2011

Rick Rypien Passes Away

Stunning news this week as NHL tough guy Rick Rypien was found dead. The 27 year old NHL tough guy was known for his countless battles on the ice. Rumors had always swirled but none of us ever knew just how serious his battles were off the ice, too

Rypien was a popular NHL tough guy, taking on fighters much bigger than himself. Twice, including most of the past season, he took lengthy leaves of absence due to personal issues. Though the team or player ever admitted what the issues were, rumors had always swirled he was suffering from a mental illness.

Globe and Mail reporter James Mirtle confirmed Rypien had been battling depression for years. Mirtle also found out that the illness runs deep in the family.

Ultimately Rypien's greatest battle was one he could not win. He ended his life on August 15th, 2011. He was just 27 years old.

He may have signed with the Winnipeg Jets, but Rick Rypien was a Vancouver Canuck through and through. The son of a former Canadian boxing champion was pound for pound as tough as any fighter in the league. He often gave up a lot of pounds, and inches in height and reach, as most of the NHL heavyweights were much bigger than he was. But he took them on anyways, using rapid fire punches with both hands. He was very good at blocking punches, which, surprisingly, is not something all hockey tough guys do.

In doing so he became one of the most popular tough guys in Canucks history, ranking up there with Tiger Williams and Gino Odjick. Had he not missed so much time with injuries and personal issues, Rypien almost certainly would have rivaled those two in all-time popularity, too.

We saw it first hand here in Terrace, a.k. a. Hockeyville 2009. The Canucks and New York Islanders came to northwestern British Columbia even if most of the stars did not. Willie Mitchell and Kevin Bieksa appeased the fans, as did Ron MacLean and Don Cherry. Curious eyes watched youngsters like Cory Schneider and Michael Grabner. Sergei Shirokov stole the show with both goals in a 2-1 victory.

But it was Rick Rypien who was the fan favorite in the blue-collar town. He fought twice, including slaying big Andy Sutton who absolutely towered over him. Like I did so often when "Rip" took on the giants, I genuinely feared for him. But in usual rapid style fashion, Rypien unleashed fists of fury early on and held his own. The crowd of 1000 roared as loudly as any sell-out crowd at Roger's Arena.

First and foremost Rypien was a fan favorite. #37 t-shirts and jerseys were as common in Vancouver as the Sedin twins or Roberto Luongo. He was a great fighter, despite his lack of size. He was full of guts and gusto. I genuinely believe had he been healthy enough to play full time he would have been an effective role player beyond fighting. He had good wheels and decent hands, once in a while surprising with a laser shot or smart pass. He hit hard on the forecheck, though could get lost on his defensive assignments.

Rick Rypien's death will leave many questions. Did the Canucks and the NHL do enough to help this man? Did Rypien himself seek enough help on his own? Is there any correlation between his troubles and fighting in hockey? On the surface these answers seem obvious, but these are uncomfortable questions that need to be examined.

Depression and mental illness is not something most of us can not really understand. The NHL and the Canucks in particular have a great opportunity to turn this tragedy into a campaign of awareness to help eliminate the stigma of mental illness. Hopefully they make this opportunity into their responsibility.

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