Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A big heart, a troubled mind: Rick Rypien

He beat huge odds to become a pro hockey player, but he couldn't beat depression, and his hockey 'families' in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Regina are in mourning on the eve of a new season

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Rick Rypien may have had a choirboy's face, but he played like the devil's winger.

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Rick Rypien may have had a choirboy's face, but he played like the devil's winger.

He was going to wear No. 11 because he was coming home.

That was the number Rick Rypien wore in junior as captain of the Regina Pats. And it's the number Rypien wore when the baby-faced kid from Coleman, Alta., first arrived in Winnipeg in March 2005, wearing a bad suit and an impish grin.

Rypien was un-drafted and was ready to pack his bags and head back to the Crowsnest Pass that March six years ago. But Manitoba Moose GM Craig Heisinger saw something in the 5-10, 180-pounder other scouts missed, something that couldn't be measured or weighed. Heisinger says he just provided Rypien with an opportunity -- nothing more, nothing less -- and the kid did the rest.

Regardless, from the moment Rypien put on a Moose jersey, he played with an unbridled enthusiasm and fearlessness that made him an instant fan favourite. With a face that had never seen a razor blade and that mischievous smile, Rypien looked to all the unsuspecting world like a choirboy.

But he played like the devil's winger.

 

He fought grown men eight inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. He threw thunderous bodychecks and would challenge anyone who took offence.

As a Manitoba Moose, Rypien played hard. 'He was the on-ice example of what we were, what we are, what we want to be,' says Jets co-owner Mark Chipman.

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As a Manitoba Moose, Rypien played hard. 'He was the on-ice example of what we were, what we are, what we want to be,' says Jets co-owner Mark Chipman. (JOHN.WOODS@FREEPRESS.MB.CA)

And he could score some, too. Not surprisingly, within a year, the un-drafted fireball was promoted to the parent Vancouver Canucks.

In his first game, on his first shift, Rick Rypien scored his first NHL goal.

You could hear them cheering all the way from Crowsnest. And Charleswood, for that matter. Because even though Rypien would stay with the Canucks organization for the next four seasons, he never really left the Moose in spirit.

In many ways, Rypien was a prodigal son of the AHL organization -- with an extraordinary relationship that ran far deeper than anyone could ever have known.

"I mean, we were very proud of what he accomplished," offers Winnipeg Jets co-owner Mark Chipman.

"I personally took great pride in the fact that Craig Heisinger spotted this kid... and stuck his neck out on the line to bring him in. He were proud that he was a very important part of our (Moose) group at one time, and he had success in the National Hockey League. He epitomized what we were about. He was a guy who had to earn his way into the NHL. He was relentless. He embodied a lot of the same characteristics to how Craig Heisinger got to where he is and, to a certain extent, how the organization got to (the NHL).

"He (Rypien) was the on-ice example of what we were, what we are, what we want to be."

How important was Rypien to the Jets? When the newly minted club signed the free agent this past summer, the owner could barely contain himself.

"That was one of the best days of my summer," Chipman said. "That was a fist-pumping moment. Beyond the announcement of joining the National Hockey League, for me that's what really brought it full circle. When we had one of our own come back full circle, that felt like the picture was complete."

Then there was Heisinger. He signed Rypien and then watched him blossom into a bona fide, blue-collar NHL regular.

It was also Heisinger who took all those countless late-night calls. And carefully replied to the strings of endless text messages when Rypien, who suffered severe bouts of depression, was falling into the emotional abyss. Again.

And it was Heisinger who first learned the worst, in mid-August; that Rypien wasn't coming home, after all. At just 27, he was found dead in his home in Coleman.

On Sunday afternoon, the Winnipeg Jets will play their first regular-season NHL game against the fabled Montreal Canadiens. It will be a watershed moment of celebration -- and rightfully so -- for the entire community.

But for the men and women who were the Manitoba Moose, just like Rypien, something palpable will be missing. No. 11 won't be in the starting lineup. And for those who never knew Rypien well, or watched him during last spring's AHL playoffs with the Moose, let the record show the emotional hole won't be so easily filled.

In fact, on the day Rypien signed with Winnipeg back in July, he confided to former Regina Pats teammate and friend Jordan McGillivray: "I'm going to play my heart out for those guys."

Of course. It's the only way Rypien knew. Fans would have adored him, as they did in Regina. As they did in Vancouver. As they did in Coleman.

Yet he never got to wear the Jets jersey, even once.

So this is the story of Rick Rypien, and what might have been.

 

When Randy Carlyle, then Moose head coach, met Rypien for the first time, his reaction was: 'Come on, he's pencil-thin. I thought you said he was a tough kid.' He soon changed his view.

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When Randy Carlyle, then Moose head coach, met Rypien for the first time, his reaction was: 'Come on, he's pencil-thin. I thought you said he was a tough kid.' He soon changed his view.

It's the spring of 2005 and at the annual Manitoba Moose Yearling Foundation dinner, the guests are taking their seats. There is a player at every table.

At one table in particular sits a young man no one has seen before. That's because Rick Rypien had just signed with the Moose a day or two before.

When Rypien politely introduced himself as a member of the AHL team, there was likely some skepticism. He was 20 then, but would have easily been carded at any self-respecting beer vendor. He was quiet and polite, dressed in one of those suits young men from small rural towns buy for their high school graduation.

First reaction? Oh, my... this kid cannot seriously play professional hockey, much less be thrown to the Chicago Wolves.

The disbelief wasn't just among civilians at a charity dinner. Moose head coach Randy Carlyle, one of the more irascible characters in the game, was incredulous when Heisinger first brought Rypien to Winnipeg.

(It's worth noting Rypien was captain of a Pats team that finished dead last in the 20-team WHL that season, amassing a franchise-low 34 points. Rypien wasn't exactly a sniper, either, with 22 goals in 63 games.)

So Heisinger introduced Rypien to Carlyle. The Moose head coach and the player chatted for a few minutes. Small talk. Then Heisinger was about to show the new guy around.

"Zinger!" Carlyle called out. "Get back here!"

Now, Heisinger and Carlyle had a unique relationship, developed over several years. They would bark at each other more than neighbours' dogs. They were hockey brothers, but brutal honesty was the glue of their relationship.

Carlyle glared at his GM and fumed: "What the (very bad word) was that?!" He was, of course, referring to the scrawny kid from the worst junior team in the country.

"What do you mean?" Heisinger demurred.

"Come on, he's pencil-thin!" Carlyle continued. "I thought you said he was a tough kid."

Craig Heisinger

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Craig Heisinger (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

Heisinger was only following the advice of Carlyle, who had once told him -- when Carlyle was the Moose head coach and GM and Heisinger was the team's equipment manager -- to follow his gut instinct when it came to scouting players. In the case of Rypien, that's exactly what Heisinger had done.

Just days before, the Pats were being put out of their misery at the end of the season, being thumped 7-2 by the Brandon Wheat Kings in a game played at the MTS Centre. Rypien had scored a goal and an assist. Not bad.

But old Moose bird dog Bruce Southern had advised Heisinger to see players practise if at all possible. You could learn as much from how players practise, Southern said, as how they played.

Sure enough, Heisinger attended the Pats' practice the next morning. And there's this Rypien kid flopping in front of shots during power-play drills. In practice. After getting drilled 7-2 the night before. On a team about to lose 50 of 72 games.

"That," the always understated Heisinger said, "was sort of the beginning of it."

But Carlyle had never seen Rypien play, much less practise. And the Moose were on their way to posting a 44-26-7-3 regular-season record, gearing up for the AHL post-season. They were loaded with veteran players, many of them Canucks property.

How could there possibly be any room for a 20-year-old rookie who was 180 pounds soaking wet?

Tough guy? Seriously?

So Heisinger pleaded. "Randy, he hasn't even hit the ice yet. If you don't like him after practice, fine. We can send him home. But he just got here! You met him for five minutes. You're a good judge of character, but not that good."

Carlyle was a good judge of character. He was a pillar of the Moose franchise from the beginning, and the grumpy old defenceman-turned-head coach would lead the Anaheim Ducks to a Stanley Cup just two years later.

So maybe Carlyle was just a little extra snarly in his Tim Hortons that morning.

"I'm not going to like this guy," he groused.

Heisinger persisted.

"He's at least going to practise. It cost us $500 to bring him in here."

Perhaps it was a WHL thing. You see, Heisinger had come up through "the Dub," too. He'd ridden the buses criss-crossing the Prairies after leaving Winnipeg for a job as assistant trainer of the Brandon Wheat Kings in 1984 in a pickup truck carrying a dresser and a stitching machine. He became one of the best in the business, too, and was selected as trainer for the 1988 Canadian world junior team. And for the Canadian Olympic team at the 1998 Games in Nagano.

By the early 1990s, Heisinger was head trainer for the Winnipeg Jets and that's when he first met up with Carlyle. They eventually became inseparable. But in their early years with the Moose, Carlyle had the last word on any player decisions.

"Randy used to always give me this line when I was the equipment guy," Heisinger said, smirking.

" 'Here's my card. I'm the coach, you're the equipment guy. Shut the @#$!# up.' "

But in the spring of 2005, the tables had turned. Carlyle had left to join the Washington Capitals as assistant coach in 2001, and by the time he returned in 2004, his old equipment manager was GM.

Finally, after another game when Heisinger felt his team's fourth line needed an adrenaline shot, he put his foot down.

"You're working for me this time," Heisinger told Carlyle. "Ryp's playing. I'm coming to the game, and he better be in warm-up."

It was a brave front. But Heisinger's gut was churning. Sure, he was the Moose GM now, but it wasn't too long ago Heisinger was sharpening the skates of the Norris Trophy defenceman when they were both with the Jets. There was no one in the hockey world he respected more than Carlyle.

"I remember tiptoeing over to the rink fretting: 'Holy crap, what's going to happen if he doesn't play him?' " Heisinger said.

Carlyle did play Rypien that night. The rookie never came out of the lineup again that spring.

Of course, Rypien was no innocent. He just looked it. Opponents discovered the reality the hard way. Heisinger knew: "If anybody challenged him, especially early on, somebody's not going to come out of this good, and it's not going to be Ryp."

Of course, the good folks of Regina had seen this movie before. Rypien might have been an unknown quantity in Winnipeg, but in the Queen City he was the undisputed king.

Just as in Winnipeg, when Rypien got to the Pats as a 17-year-old late in the 2002 season, there was an element of disbelief.

Rypien showed up in Regina with his father, Wes, Sr., who had taught his boys the finer art of boxing while they were growing up in Coleman. Wes Rypien, Jr. had preceded his little brother into the WHL. He was an enforcer with the Calgary Hitmen, once racking up 249 penalty minutes in a single season.

The older brother was 6-2, 190 pounds. Rick was generously listed as 5-10, 180 pounds. But then-Pats GM Brent Parker knew the Rypien family bloodlines. Father Wes was a former Canadian boxing champion. Rypien's cousin, Mark, was the MVP of the Washington Redskins Super Bowl XXVI championship team in 1991.

Rypien gave the impression that he was pretty much indestructible during his junior hockey days with the Regina Pats.

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Rypien gave the impression that he was pretty much indestructible during his junior hockey days with the Regina Pats. (DON HEALY)

"He played the game with such reckless abandon and a fearlessness," Parker recalled of Rypien. "He had cuts and bruises and nicks on his face, it seemed like a new one every night. Never complained, never whined. He'd just come to the rink every day and get his ice bag and get his treatment. Then go out and play his tail off."

Looking back, Parker never had reason to believe Rypien was anything less than indestructible. Depression? No, he was just quiet. Stoic.

However, tragedy struck when Rypien's girlfriend died in a car accident en route to a game in Calgary during Rypien's second year with the Pats.

"That hit him pretty hard," offered Peter Engelhardt, the father of Rypien's billet family, to the Regina Leader-Post last summer.

"He had a couple of weeks off after that incident, where they let him go home and just deal with things. Did he start showing things? He had changed a little bit, right then and there. You know what? Everybody's going to, when you have something like this happen."

Parker agreed.

"Like any kid, he had trouble dealing with it," he said. "But he kept everything so close to the vest you never thought it was at any dangerous levels. He seemed to deal with it as well as you could expect."

Besides, Rypien always kept his feelings to himself. It was just his way.

Consider that immediately after the Moose signed Rypien at the end of the Pats' dismal 2005 season, Pats teammate Jordan McGillivray invited his captain over for a couple of drinks.

Did Rypien come bursting into McGillivray's house boasting about signing with a professional team -- only every Canadian kid's dream come true? No, he sat there with a few teammates, and they talked hockey for about an hour before Rypien finally broke the good news.

"We had to pry it out of him," McGillivray recalled.

It's not that Rypien wouldn't have been ecstatic. He was probably overjoyed. Inside. So he packed his bags for Winnipeg and set off for the Moose. That $500 ticket Craig Heisinger bought was waiting. But they were missing Rypien in Regina already.

Regina Pats president Brent Parker with a cover of the Pats' magazine featuring a photo of Rypien. 'He kept everything so close to the vest. He seemed to deal with (the death of his girlfriend) as well as you could expect.'

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Regina Pats president Brent Parker with a cover of the Pats' magazine featuring a photo of Rypien. 'He kept everything so close to the vest. He seemed to deal with (the death of his girlfriend) as well as you could expect.' (REGINA LEADER-POST)

In his 17 years with the Pats, Parker, now president of the organization, collected just four keepsakes from the team: a signed jersey from former Pats star Barret Jackman, Jordan Eberle's world junior championship jersey, a banner signed by the Pats Memorial Cup team and a photo of Rick Rypien.

"He (Rypien) goes down as my all-time favourite player we've ever had," Parker said.

"Just because of the whole story; the underdog part and how he wasn't a big kid. He just overcame absolutely everything. And then he went, in the span of three years, from being undrafted out of nowhere to play in the National Hockey League.

"And the thing about him was that he was so grateful to anybody who ever did anything for him. There's been a big hole in a lot of people since he left."

Rypien gave Parker the photo. He signed it, "Thanks for the privilege of being a Regina Pat."

 

Rypien's ascension through the professional ranks, given his walk-on status in Manitoba, was meteoric. Before his rookie season in Manitoba was two months old, the parent Canucks signed Rypien to a contract. As Christmas approached, the Moose had a brief break for the holidays.

 

"He was quiet and did all his talking with his hard work. Old-school," Chipman recalled. "Keep your mouth shut and play hard. You add the way he did it, too... making an impact so early, that's what I really admired about him. And it just grew from there."

Before Rypien left to visit his family in Coleman, Heisinger advised: "Take your equipment. The Canucks might be calling."

They did. On the night of Dec. 21, the Canucks hosted the Edmonton Oilers and Rypien jumped over the boards for his first shift in the bigs.

He shot, he scored.

A couple of hours later, Heisinger's phone rang again.

"He (Rypien) called me after the game, and he was really excited," Heisinger said. "That's probably the first time it clicked in that he counted on you. Rick never liked being alone. He always liked to have people who were by his side, just emotionally."

"At the end of the day, he just didn't want to be alone. Not physically. He just didn't want to be by himself."

Again, no red flags. As Heisinger always told himself, "Ryp is just wired differently." After all, Heisinger had dealt with hundreds of players over the years. They were all different. Some were volatile. Some lacked motivation. Others were moody.

Rypien? He was just a little shy. Unfailingly polite. He didn't like crowds of strangers. But kids he adored. For several years, Rypien and his old hockey buddies, including brother Wes, ran a summer hockey camp in Coleman.

As one town employee noted, "It didn't matter if a kid was seven years old or 17, Rick took time for all of them. They just flocked to him."

That was the paradox of Rypien, who off the ice wasn't just a gentleman. He was gentle, period.

Yet on the ice, Rypien was reckless. He fought giants. In fact, his dance card in the NHL included 6-7 defenceman Hal Gill and Boris Valabik, also 6-7. Rypien fought 6-4 then-Edmonton Oilers bruiser Zack Stortini on several occasions.

"It was never about himself," McGillivray noted. "He was never worried that he might get hurt. He would just do everything he could to make that team better. I don't even know if he realized he was that small. He had no fear."

Not true. For a young man who suffered from a spiralling depression for more than a decade, as Heisinger would discover, Rypien feared for years that his fragile state of mind would be exposed. There were feelings Rypien would never express, even to his closest teammates, such as the impact of losing his girlfriend in that accident.

"Some things happened earlier in his life when he played in junior that had a significant effect on his life that he could never quite get past," Heisinger said. "Finding somebody in his life and having kids, that was a big, big thing for him."

Then before the opening of Moose training camp in 2007, Rypien called Heisinger and said he couldn't bring himself to come to Winnipeg.

"It was hard to get out of him why," Heisinger recalled. "He gave me some reasons that I don't know were 100 per cent (true) at the time because what I found out when the process went on was Ryp was sometimes good at hiding the truth. It's not like he meant to lie to you. Towards the end of things, he always felt like he was a burden. I told him, 'Ryp, if you become a burden, we'll tell you. Right now, you're our friend, and this is what friends do for one another.' "

But Heisinger began to realize that whatever ailed Rypien, professional help was required. This was fathoms deeper than a slump. Still, try to convince a strong, proud professional athlete he needs help. Said Heisinger: "That was easier said than done. He had to buy into it (treatment), too, and that took quite a while. He thought he could get himself through."

Worse, Rypien didn't want anyone to speculate that he was being treated for drug or alcohol abuse.

"That's what ate him up more than anything else, that if he was in rehab (the public might think) it had to be drugs or alcohol," Heisinger noted. "That couldn't be further from the issue."

Winnipeg-based sports psychologist Cal Botterill, whose son Jason played several NHL seasons and daughter Jennifer was a longtime member of the Canadian Olympic women's hockey team, said Rypien's reaction to treatment was, unfortunately, the norm in his profession.

"The biggest difficulty is they (athletes) will be in the sports medicine clinic for a friggin' hangnail, but they won't go near the place for an emotional disorder for their fear of a stigma that might be attached to it," Botterill said. "That's unfortunate, because it's led to a lot of these serious consequences. Somehow it's built into the essence of (the male ego) that we're supposed to be strong and be able to handle our problems."

It's not as though Rypien was alone. Both the Canucks and the Moose surrounded him with a support system that included players, such as Moose and Canucks teammate Kevin Bieksa, and clinical professionals.

"We tried to deal with it as though he was a member of the family," Canucks GM Mike Gillis told the Free Press. "It was an everyday situation that we thought about all the time. We were trying to be there for him. It was challenging, but it was worth every bit of effort."

And the efforts, in the case of the Canucks and Moose, were sometimes extraordinary. In recent years, when Rypien was out of the Canucks lineup suffering from physical, if not psychological, injuries, efforts would be constantly made to contact him. But there were times when Rypien would simply go dark for days.

On one such occasion, Rypien couldn't be reached for two weeks while he was supposed to be at his home recuperating in Coleman. Both organizations became so concerned that Heisinger flew to Edmonton, where the Canucks had played the Oilers. Bieksa and Heisinger flew to Lethbridge, then set out on an anxious drive to Coleman.

"We weren't sure what we were going to find, either," Heisinger said. "We were worried. Neither one of us wanted to go to (his) house, but we did."

To their great relief, Rypien was found unharmed.

After some coaxing, the three men drove back to Calgary. Bieksa drove with Rypien back to Vancouver.

It was often a razor's edge with Rypien. Of course, Rypien's family members were equally concerned, but just as helpless.

Rypien's mother, Shelley Crawford, politely declined comment on behalf of the family for this story.

By early in the 2010-11 season, Rypien's off-ice issues spilled into the arena. On Oct. 21, during a game in Minnesota, the fiery winger uncharacteristically shoved a linesman and was ejected. While leaving the ice, Rypien grabbed a Wild fan by the chest before being restrained by teammates. Rypien called his actions "inexcusable." He was suspended for six games following a hearing with league commissioner Gary Bettman.

Heisinger flew to New York for the hearing. Always there. The night before, the two stayed up talking until dawn. They had a few laughs, some emotional moments.

"Sometimes it was hard to get answers," Heisinger explained. "We stayed up all night talking about a million different things. I wasn't judgmental in any way because I hadn't walked in his shoes. Lots of times you didn't even understand some things, but you listened and talked."

For the second time in two seasons, after serving his suspension, Rypien left the Canucks indefinitely in November. And after months of treatment, Rypien returned to hockey. More precisely, he returned to the Moose.

Just as in the spring of 2005, the AHL club was bracing for the post-season. But far from the baby-faced neophyte who had shown up six years before, Rypien was sporting a thick beard and a new attitude.

"Yeah, with the new approach and mindset I've got... all the stuff I was dealing with before has been dealt with," he told reporters. "I feel better than I have as a person, so... I want to be that player I think I can be. I don't think anything's holding me back now.

"I'm going to be giddy, like a little kid out there. It's all going to be good. I'm going to have fun with it. I'm going to enjoy it. There's no cloud over my head anymore."

It wasn't just talk, either. In Manitoba's opening series, they fell behind 3-1 against the favoured, more talented Lake Erie Monsters. It was Rypien and Moose veteran Jason Jaffray who led an unlikely comeback.

Rypien had a very obvious love of the game. 'I'm going to have fun with it. I'm going to enjoy it. There's no cloud over my head anymore,' he said during the Moose's last playoff run.

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Rypien had a very obvious love of the game. 'I'm going to have fun with it. I'm going to enjoy it. There's no cloud over my head anymore,' he said during the Moose's last playoff run. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

"He was fantastic when he came back," Heisinger said. "He played as good as I've seen him play. If it wasn't for him, we don't win that (Lake Erie) series. He was clearly an NHL player in the AHL. Our two best players were him and Jaff. And they were hurt badly. They had four legs between them and only two worked. And they willed their way to win."

Pure Rypien. He wasn't about to quit on his teammates. Not in the playoffs. Not ever. That single-minded determination only served to remind Chipman about the unbreakable bond that had developed between the player and the general manager.

"And the more Rick needed help," Chipman said, "the more Zinger was there for him."

Here's the thing though: Heisinger couldn't be there, not always. Still, every night for the last five years -- every single night -- when Heisinger went to sleep, he made sure his phone ringer was on. Just in case.

"When my phone would ring at two or three in the morning," said Heisinger, the father of four boys, "everybody in the house knew it might be a long couple of weeks."

Maybe it was a string of text messages, one after the other, if Rypien was hurting. If it sounded serious, a chat was in order. But the text messages and late-night calls were getting fewer and further in between.

"I hadn't seen him at rock-bottom emotionally for a long time," Heisinger said. "Usually you'd hear it more than you'd see it. And I hadn't heard it."

On May 31, Chipman announced to the world that the NHL was coming back to Winnipeg in the form of the Atlanta Thrashers. On July 2, Rypien, a free agent, signed with the Jets.

Rypien had options. Two other NHL teams offered two-year deals for even more than the one-year, $650,000 bid from the Jets. For most other players, that wasn't even a choice.

But the Jets had put on a full-court press. Chipman made a pitch. So did Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.

Finally, Rypien got Heisinger on the phone. "This is between you and me now," he said. "Get off your wallet, give me another 50 grand, and I'll sign for one year."

Deal, said Heisinger.

But only on one condition: "If I call or text you, I have to hear back then," Heisinger insisted. "Not in a day or two days later. Or come in the next day and say, 'I got your text, what's up?' That's not going to cut it. We've been through too much. If you don't text me back in a few minutes, we're going to have a problem."

 

On Sunday, Aug. 14, Heisinger was just about to board a plane in Toronto bound for Winnipeg when the Jets director of hockey operations and assistant GM checked his messages.

 

One was from Rypien. Standard stuff. The player was scheduled to leave on a flight from Calgary to Winnipeg on Monday morning. So Rypien was checking whether there would be any ice time available after getting an MRI upon arrival (an update for the knee injury Rypien had suffered in the Moose playoffs).

Rypien and Heisinger had discussed the same subject the day before, so Heisinger deleted the message with Rypien in mid-sentence. Everybody does it. Because Heisinger was going to contact Rypien as soon as he landed in Winnipeg, which he did in the form of a text.

Rypien didn't get back to him immediately. He had been so prompt the entire summer. He hadn't missed a single return call. So Heisinger wasn't going to lose any sleep. "Everything's set for you," he texted Rypien. "See you in the morning."

The next morning, no Rypien. The pit of Heisinger's stomach began to ache. He asked his assistant to call to see if Rypien had checked into the hotel in Winnipeg that morning. Just by the look of distress on her face, Heisinger says, "I know, he didn't check in."

In a cold sweat, Heisinger phoned a friend at the airline. Was Rypien on the plane?

No.

Heisinger sent text after text: "Please call. I'm really worried."

Nothing. Heisinger called Rypien's grandmother and brother again and again. And again. No answer.

A tweet appeared on a Facebook site: "R.I.P., Rick Rypien." An ominous weight fell over the Jets' offices on Hargrave Street.

By the time Globe and Mail hockey writer James Mirtle tweeted confirmation of Rypien's death by the Coleman RCMP, the numbing reality was just beginning to set in. It spread throughout the hockey community.

Heisinger called Bieksa. In Regina, Parker heard the news and almost drove his car off the road. Chipman was crushed. McGillivray was in denial, then devastated. He was planning on coming to Winnipeg, at Rypien's urging, for the Jets season opener.

The rest was just pain. Emptiness. Questions that could never be answered.

If only Rypien had got on the plane.

"That's all I thought of when I found out," Chipman said. "If that kid had just got on that airplane. I don't know if that ever would have made a difference, but if we had just got him here and part of our family again... "

Heisinger wondered about the voice message from Rypien that he deleted a day earlier.

"The only thing that nags in my mind, and just a little bit, is what if I had got that phone call instead of being on the plane?" he confided. "I have trouble wondering what was going through his mind in those last 10 or 15 minutes. I wish I saved the message or heard the whole thing. But I never had any indication from his voice (that anything was wrong)."

But, Chipman noted, "at least he died with us. What if we had turned our back on him?"

Yet guilt remains for some.

Asked if Rypien's death made him feel helpless, Parker replied: "I feel almost ashamed."

Ashamed?

"Well... they become like your kids," Parker explained. "So when something like this happens, you sit there and go through in your head every conversation, every text, everything that happened along the way. Questioning if there was a different way you could have handled it. Did you miss something? Did you not read something? You go through the whole gamut.

"I don't know if anything could have been done, but you certainly question if there was."

Heisinger is at peace, at least knowing in his heart that the Moose and Canucks did everything in their power to keep Rypien safe.

"He battled a lot of things within himself," Heisinger said, "and I think he just got tired."

But that doesn't make the feeling of loss any less hollow. McGillivray can't look at a Jets highlight now without thinking of the teammate who cracked him up on those long bus trips to Kelowna or Saskatoon.

"It's a never-ending cycle of emotions," he said. "But I'm sure Rick wouldn't want us to constantly be in sorrow over him. He'd want us to appreciate what he did and how he was and go forward... but you know how tough it is."

Heisinger knows. He acknowledged that it didn't really matter where Rypien had signed this past summer, the Jets -- and the Canucks, too -- would have remained a major part of Rypien's support system. It wasn't a choice anymore.

Would there have been a breaking point? A time, out of frustration or confusion or exasperation, when they just couldn't put up with the emotional toll anymore?

A stupid question.

"I wish," Heisinger replied, "I was still putting up with it."

On the night Rick Rypien died, the man who watched him block shots at that practice more than six years earlier, and paid that $500 plane ticket to Winnipeg, settled into bed after one of the hardest days of his life. But first, without really thinking, Craig Heisinger did something he hadn't done for as long as he could remember.

He turned off his cellphone.

Tyler Stychyshyn wears a Manitoba Moose jersey as he writes a message at a makeshift memorial for former Vancouver Canucks hockey player Rick Rypien during a gathering of fans to remember Rypien outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Aug. 17.

Enlarge Image

Tyler Stychyshyn wears a Manitoba Moose jersey as he writes a message at a makeshift memorial for former Vancouver Canucks hockey player Rick Rypien during a gathering of fans to remember Rypien outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Aug. 17. (CP)

In the wake of the publicity surrounding Rypien's death, about a dozen "very high-profile" community members walked into the Manitoba Mood Disorders Association office on Fort Street seeking help.

All were men.

 

"It's completely a direct result of Rick," said Tara Brousseau, the MMDA executive director. "And they've come to us because they are high-profile. This has opened up men who've never been able to talk about how they're coping. Men who I don't think would have come forward, who have been living with depression or suicidal thoughts and they're saying, 'I need help.'

"In sad things, there does come some hope," Brousseau added. "That's why it's important. If we can start men getting to talk they won't be as vulnerable to this. They may be under medical care, they may be under counselling and all those other things, but one thing that's so helpful is to provide a safe environment (to talk)."

"This is like no other disease. You can have cancer. You can have diabetes. There's been hockey players with Crohn's disease. It (depression or severe anxiety) is just one of the things you can have. We hope to get to the point where people can be open and can be comfortable about getting help.

"It's something real and raw, and it's very deep," Brousseau added. "It gives you a sense of hopelessness. You can be on the top of your game, but you can still feel that life has lost its meaning. And it's very hard to get away from that feeling. It's a black hole, it really is. With depression, it might be an effort just to brush your teeth."

In response, the MMDA, a peer-support organization, is setting up a group designed specifically for men with depression disorders, with plans for an education series to reach out to the public.

In fact, the message would have been identical to what Rypien had planned to spread himself.

"That was Ryp's biggest goal towards the end," Heisinger noted. "To get better and get his message out there: To tell people there's nothing to be ashamed of. There's ways to get better. He was really passionate about that. That probably more than anything... if I was surprised it was because I thought he had a really firm grasp about getting that message out. It was real important to him."

Gillis said the Canucks are already working to partner with a mental-health organization in the Vancouver area "to remember Rick in the proper light."

"We're hoping it might help some others, people who are going through similar feelings or issues, that it doesn't matter what your walk of life or your income," he said.

"These are situations that are common for a lot of people. Hopefully, we can educate people about what happened with us and what we tried to do and people can realize they're not alone. There's people and places they can go to help them."

Heisinger hopes the oft-repeated desire is true, that something good can come of this. But with opening night approaching, the loss of Rypien only becomes more profound.

"He should be here," Heisinger said, almost forcing a smile. "I was thinking that the other day going to work. I think about him every day. He used to make fun of me running on the treadmill. He should be here... but he's not."

He should be here, but he's not. That was the dilemma the Jets wrestled with when the subject of honouring Rypien was discussed. How do you hold a memorial for a player in the midst of the rebirth of a team?

Of course, as always the case with Rypien and the organization that found him and never let him go, there was really no choice at all.

Rypien's mother, Shelley, has been invited by the Jets to be in the opening-game stands at the MTS Centre. A tribute to Rypien's journey from the Moose to the NHL, and back, will be played on the video scoreboard.

Then a moment of silence before the inevitable roar. The Jets players' helmets will be sporting an "RR" decal in honour of Rypien all season.

Concluded Chipman: "We were very concerned that the return of the NHL would overshadow the loss of a fantastic life. That can't happen. There is going to be a tremendous amount of hype around opening night and that's fantastic. But at the same time, we cannot deny how important Rick was to many of us."

But then Chipman had already said what Rick Rypien really meant to the franchise that grew up to be the Winnipeg Jets...

What they were, what they are, what they want to be.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 8, 2011 0

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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