Rick Rypien will be remembered as a man who was respected by his opponents and teammates.
But what was further hammered home at a press conference Tuesday afternoon -- a day after the 27-year-old’s sudden passing to what RCMP are calling a ‘non-suspicious sudden death’ – was just how adored Rypien was by those in the Winnipeg Jet/Manitoba Moose organization.
"He was a simple guy who had a pretty easy home life and who barely had a bank account," said Moose assistant GM Craig Heisinger during a media availability Tuesday in which he occasionally struggled to fight back tears . "He was just a simple guy with some issues to deal with. There’s a lot I’m going to miss about him."
Those issues included a decade-long battle with depression that saw him take two leaves of absence during his days with the Vancouver Canucks. But after signing with the Jets as a free agent last month everyone who had spoken with Rypien this summer commented on how he seemed refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to continue to win over fans and management with his high-energy and spirited approach to every shift.
But when Rypien failed to arrive in Winnipeg Sunday night for an MRI on his knee Monday morning – and just hours after checking with Heisinger about whether there was ice available for him to skate on -- then some alarm bells began to clang. He was also scheduled to run his annual hockey school in Coleman, Alberta this week but did not appear before RCMP in Crowsnest Pass confirmed his death Monday night.
Heisinger said he was aware of some of the details of Rypien’s death but opted to leave the possible release of them to the family’s discretion.
"There were no drug or alcohol issues... depression is the right word," said Heisinger. "I think he had a fantastic summer, but obviously that wasn’t the case. Every communication I had with him I didn’t see anything different than that. He seemed really excited to be back here. I think there was a comfort zone here for him. He had an apartment all set up and was ready to go. So the question being, did we see any signs? No, we didn’t.
"I thought for sure he had made strides... I was happy for him because I knew how much he wanted to play here and there was a 100 per cent level of comfort for him here. This is all hard to put into words. It’s been a challenging 24 hours. I’m hoping to not have to deal with this again. You learn lessons from these things. Rick always spoke about once he had this situation under control about trying to speak out and help other people. At the end of the day I’m hoping something like that comes out of this. I guess I’m having trouble seeing how it will right now."
First signed by the Moose in 2005 after a career with the WHL’s Regina Pats, Rypien won over doubters with his style of play. Undrafted in the NHL, he still played 119 games with the Canucks, chipping in offensively, playing responsibly in his own end and offering a level of toughness that was respected for a player a couple inches shy of six feet and well under 200 pounds.
"The Canucks were really supportive of Ryp through his time, not only through injury but through the time he had to leave to deal with his issues," Heisinger said. "The Canucks never questioned anything. They paid him right through and the level of support they showed him was phenomenal. And from a Moose perspective he started his career here and he finished his career here.
"I think he gave a lot more back to us than we gave to him."