Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The night hockey took a back bench to humanity

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The Winnipeg Jets had a rare Saturday night off last weekend, but not Mark Chipman and some of the NHL team's other top brass, including general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

They were on duty.

They turned out at the St. Charles Country Club for the In The Mood Gala, where three people were honoured with Helping Hands awards by the Manitoba Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba.

One award went to Dr. Keith Hildahl, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's medical director of child and adolescent mental health, for his years of dedicated service. Another went to young Taylor Demetrioff and his Waterfront Drive bandmates. The then-19-year-old founded weekly youth self-help groups and a rock-band camp "where," the program explained, "young people can emulate Taylor's success in coping with mood disorders."

But the person the Jets' front office was there to cheer for was one of their own: Craig Heisinger, the organization's assistant GM. "Zinger," as he's known, was honoured for his support of people living with depression.

One in particular. His hockey pal, Rick Rypien.

The Jets forward -- whom Zinger discovered, stood up for as a seemingly undersized pro hockey prospect and befriended -- was found dead in his Alberta home last summer at age 27.

It happened just before the team's training camp was to open and it devastated Heisinger, Chipman and the rest of the organization.

As Randy Turner documented in an in-depth Free Press feature story last fall, when Heisinger learned of Rypien's lonely, stigma-tainted struggle with mental illness, he helped convince his friend to get professional help. Zinger also offered support as someone who cared enough to listen. The former Manitoba Moose organization, led by Chipman and Heisinger, also reached out to Rypien when he played with the American Hockey League team, as did the parent-club Vancouver Canucks, for whom Rypien also played.

Sadly, none of it was enough.

But Rypien's story and the support of Zinger and other hockey friends has helped others. As Turner wrote, the publicity surrounding Rypien's death moved a dozen "very high-profile" Winnipeg men to walk into the Manitoba Mood Disorders Association office on Fort Street looking for help.

"It's completely a direct result of Rick," the MMDA executive director, Tara Brousseau, told Turner.

"This has opened up men who've never been able to talk about how they're coping," she added. "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.' "

Zinger received a Helping Hand award because he personifies those who help people with mental illness, as do the others in Rypien's hockey family who tried to be there for the gutsy little forward when he went into those dark corners.

Those places where depression dominates, one on one, and, in his case, eventually wins. Even with a winger like Zinger beside him.

But we shouldn't end on a down note. The mood Saturday was more celebratory than sad. In Zinger's acceptance speech, he said he saw someone in the gala crowd who goes back to his days as a rink rat, sharpening skates for the original version of the Winnipeg Jets.

Maryann Mazepa was one of the "hostesses" at the Winnipeg Arena who guided fans to their seats. Maryann, who also guarded the ramp when fans tried to linger for a better look at the game, recalled Zinger was one of those she regularly gave the boot.

Zinger alluded to that in his speech, and to what Maryann did when she learned Zinger was assistant GM of the new Jets. She sent him a congratulatory email that concluded with the words: "Now you can kick me out."

But there was something Zinger didn't tell the crowd about those days when she kicked him off the ramp.

He never complained or bothered to tell her he was a member of the Jets' organization.

"He's a great guy," Maryann told me. "A great guy."

So all of Winnipeg has learned.

And Rick Rypien knew better than anyone.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2012 B1

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