Rick Rypien punched above his weight class most nights in pro hockey as well as in his everyday battle with depression.
Often Rypien was able to win on the ice but his illness refused to stay in the shadows.
The 27-year-old Winnipeg Jets winger was found dead Monday in his home near Coleman, Alta.
Rypien saw action in parts of six NHL seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, but played in just 119 games over that time due to injuries and two separate leaves from the team due to personal issues.
After leaving the Canucks this past season to deal with his illness, Rypien came to Winnipeg, the place of his start as a pro, to play for the Moose and rejuvenate his career.
The normally businesslike Rypien arrived in Winnipeg tanned, relaxed and much quicker with a smile than the media had ever seen in his previous stints with the Moose.
Former teammate, roommate and dressing room stall neighbour Mike Keane said Rypien had appeared to find some peace in his life.
"He seemed to be in a good place. We chatted off and on this summer and he was happy with the way things were going and the way he was feeling," said Keane. "I don’t know what to say. It’s a shock. His demons were stronger than anyone knew."
Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger brought Rypien to Winnipeg back in the Manitoba Moose days and was the player’s greatest champion.
Heisinger was Rypien’s confidante, friend and supporter.
When the Jets began signing free agents as a new NHL team, it was no surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of the relationship between the two men that the Jets added Rypien.
Jets owner Mark Chipman commented on the day Rypien was signed that the team had immeasurably upped its character quotient.
"I was happy he had signed with the Jets. Zinger and Chip had Rip’s best interests in mind. They looked out for him and they wanted the best for him," said Keane. "They took care of him when he needed it. I was happy he was back here because it was the right place for him."
Rypien arrived in Winnipeg an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2005 and immediately earned the respect and admiration of Moose coach Randy Carlyle.
Carlyle famously mistrusted rookies, but Rypien proved to be responsible defensively and willing to do whatever he could to help his team win.
Others noticed, too, and it took Rypien less than a season to go from a skinny but deadly AHL middleweight to an NHL buzz saw.
Heisinger discovered Rypien playing for the Regina Pats in the Western Hockey League and described him as "a really good player on a really bad team."
Heisinger noted that Rypien never quit in games as a junior despite most of them being losing causes. Heisinger reasoned the player would bring that same will to pro hockey.
Boy, was he right.
His first night in a Moose jersey, Rypien took on a much larger opponent in a scrap in front of the Moose bench and despite the size disadvantage managed to score a victory. His new teammates could hardly believe their eyes as this wisp of a boy, who couldn’t put together a moustache if you spotted him three months, hung on for dear life and kept firing punches until his dance partner wore out and moved in for the clinch.
It was the ultimate first impression as the banging of sticks against the Moose bench boards told the whole building.
Rypien was bone sewn together with sinew covered by a layer of muscle. His body was all angles and edges and he threw it at any and all opponents with complete abandon.
"He was the ultimate teammate," said Keane. "We were roommates for a couple of years and we sat beside each other in the room. You couldn’t ask for anything more. You could see it in the way he played. He played hard and he stuck up for his teammates. He worked hard on his game and constantly tried to get better. That’s how you win in pro hockey, with people like Rip."
Calgary Flames forward Guillaume Desbiens played with Rypien in Manitoba and Vancouver.
"It’s messed up. I just found out. I’m flabbergasted," said Desbiens from his home in Montreal. "From the first time you met Rip, he was a great guy to be around. His personal problems have been written about a lot lately and that paints him in a bad light. He was easy to be around and fun to be around. He was a great teammate , the kind of guy you looked forward to coming to the rink with and building a team."
Keane said Rypien hid his dark emotions.
"People didn’t know what he was feeling. He never showed it," said Keane. "It’s so sad. There’s really no words for it. I don’t know what to say."