Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

True North mourns loss of fan favourite

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The excitement of the the NHL's return to Winnipeg was derailed Monday -- Jets' nation and the league is mourning the death of fan favourite Rick Rypien.

The Jets confirmed the news Monday night, issuing a statement.

Rypien is believed to have been found Monday by a family member.

The RCMP in Crowsnest Pass, Alta., which is not far from Rypien's southern Alberta home in Coleman, told some media outlets on Monday that the death was not suspicious.

A family member, Rypien's cousin Angela, who's the daughter of former NFL star quarterback Mark Rypien, also had several posts on Twitter Monday confirming the family tragedy.

The 27-year-old forward, a pint-sized fireball on the ice, first arrived in Winnipeg in March, 2005, brought in from the WHL's Regina Pats as an undrafted tryout for the AHL's Manitoba Moose.

His fearless, willing style earned him an NHL deal with the Moose's parent club, the Vancouver Canucks, the very next season and Rypien played 119 games for the Canucks between then and the nine he suited up for in 2010-11.

In his time with the Canucks, the combination of Rypien's willingness to fight bigger opponents and his fearless playing style frequently led to injuries and he spent a large amount of time out of action.

He also had two absences from the Canucks for personal reasons. The latest came last season not long after he had been suspended by the NHL for six games for overreacting to and getting involved with a fan behind the Canucks bench in Minnesota.

It was widely speculated that Rypien's absence was related to his mental health. When he returned to fitness later in the season and rejoined the Moose on a special open-ended conditioning stint, he confirmed to the Free Press it had nothing to do with drugs, alcohol or substance abuse, so there wouldn't be speculation on what kept him out.

"It's a personal issue, a rare issue, what's going on," Rypien said in March. "I think I'm a good person who's had some bad luck along the way with some unfortunate circumstances."

He also told the Free Press at the time he was coming back with a clear head and he looked forward to sharing some of his story sometime soon in the hope of helping those with similar conditions.

"As we go on here, people are going to find out more about everything and how we're going to do everything," Rypien said. "Hockey players and other people struggle with certain things. I hope I'll be able to inspire some people, maybe help them out."

Rypien got into 11 AHL games and seven playoff games before injuring his knee, then signed with the new Jets on July 4, a one-year, $700,000 contract.

The contract no doubt had a lot to do with the faith of then-Moose GM and now Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger. Heisinger and Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa were believed to be two of Rypien's closest friends and allies.

Early in the playoffs, he delivered a dominating performance in helping the Moose defeat the Lake Erie Monsters, scoring the winning goal in overtime of Game 2 in Cleveland.

He missed two games in the series with the injury, then could only play the first two games of the second-round matchup against Hamilton that went seven games.

Jason Jaffray, Rypien's former Moose and Canucks teammate, and potential future teammate again in Winnipeg, was heavy-hearted Monday night.

Jaffray and Rypien first joined the Moose within about a month of each other and were roommates then, and again this past spring, when Jaffray returned from major knee surgery.

"Rick was a guy everybody loved having on his team," Jaffray said last night from his Olds, Alta., home. "You hated to play against him. You loved him in your dressing room because you knew he'd have your back, especially if your top-end guys were run over or taken advantage of. He'd be the first to step up.

"He cared, and you loved him in there having your back. He was one of those foot soldiers that brings the team together."

Jaffray said he'd spoken to Rypien earlier this summer. He said they chatted about going to Vancouver to watch a game of the Stanley Cup final between the Canucks and Boston.

"When I talked to him then, he sure was excited about this fall already," Jaffray said. "He didn't want to go to that finals game in Vancouver. He said he wanted to think about bringing that Cup to Winnipeg.

"He said to me that we should both sign in Winnipeg and have the Cup party there. He signed, and so did I. I don't know the details of how or why this happened today, but this is a tragedy."

Jaffray said he and Rypien frequently laughed this spring, again as roommates.

"We were always icing our knees down together," he said. "We talked about how we were the Band-Aid to the team.

"He sure got us back into the (first) series with that overtime winner, not a pretty goal but when you're a fourth-line grinder, those are the goals you're expected to score.

"And I remember him saying he was frustrated that nobody would fight him in the playoffs. But that whole line was really setting the tone for our team when we were down a couple of games."

Rypien's introduction to Winnipeg and Moose fans in 2005 remains a warm memory, Jaffray said.

"Zinger (Heisinger) put us both in an apartment together, so we were roommates and also linemates when we were in lineup.

"I just remember thinking, 'Who's that 12-year old kid? He looked extremely small and young right out of junior in Regina. I wasn't the only one to wonder how this guy's going to hold up against pro players."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2011 D1

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