Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets never saw it coming

Believed Rypien was rejuvenated, ready to revive his NHL career

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Those in the know -- the select few in his inner circle and the men that suited up with and against him -- will always remember Rick Rypien as more than just a tough guy.

Oh sure, the 27-year-old could throw 'em, all right. And he would regularly and willingly drop his gloves to protect anyone wearing the same jersey as his own.

But he had skills beyond simply the grit and toughness that was part of his DNA. He could score, he was responsible in his own end and every time he stepped on the ice he brought that shift-disturber energy to the game that often had fans inching forward in their seats.

That alone made him appealing to those in the Manitoba Moose organization who first spotted him during his days with the Regina Pats, then to the Vancouver Canucks and -- after a handful of teams inquired in free agency -- finally back to Winnipeg and the Jets this summer.

Still, Rypien was much more than even that. In many ways, he had become the epitome of everything the Jets organization represented: the against-all-odds scrapper who made it to the bigs while stepping over or through every doubter and cynic along the way.

That's why his passing -- he was found dead in his Coleman, Alta., home Monday afternoon -- hit the Jets like a death in the family.

It's why as assistant GM Craig Heisinger occasionally fought back tears during a media conference Tuesday, owner Mark Chipman was spotted at the back of the room with his glasses in one hand, his head buried in the other.

"He loved being the style of player he was, the smaller-bodied guy that fought two or three weight classes up and often came out on top," said Heisinger. "We differed on some things, on how he dealt with some things, but I would say we had a fantastic relationship."

RCMP in Crowsnest Pass, Alta., called Rypien's passing a 'non-suspicious sudden death,' but his battles with depression are now well-documented. Rypien took two leaves of absences while with the Canucks for personal reasons, but after returning to the Moose in the spring -- Heisinger said he was arguably the club's best player in the playoffs -- and then signing with the Jets in July, he appeared to have defeated his demons and was refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to revive his career.

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 -- alarm bells began to clang. He was also scheduled to run his annual hockey school in Coleman this week.

Heisinger said he was aware of some of the details of Rypien's death, but opted to leave their possible release 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. 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 never got the sense that there was any problems all summer. I spoke to other people in his support group and none of us had that sense... so, either something happened very quickly or we all missed the boat.

"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."

Heisinger first thought of Rypien as a pro prospect during his junior days in Regina and, in particular, after the Brandon Wheat Kings had throttled the Pats in a game at the MTS Centre. The next morning Rypien was blocking shots in practice.

"That's what attracted me to Rick Rypien," Heisinger explained. "I can remember going down to the dressing room after and saying, 'Tell me more about this guy' and it went from there."

It went from there to a regular shift with the Moose and, ultimately, to the bright NHL lights with the Canucks. There he also made an immediate impact with his teammates and with the organization, who were very supportive during his time getting treatment for depression.

"Over the course of the last three seasons, we participated in a variety of different initiatives with him and we were all really close with him," Canucks GM Gillis told The Canadian Press Tuesday in Toronto. "We had an understanding of what we thought was going on and had a number of outside agencies involved in assisting us and we felt we were on course.

"We felt he was making progress in a lot of different areas. When he signed with Winnipeg, we were all really happy for him."

In Vancouver, Canucks fans had set up a small memorial outside Rogers Arena by pasting posters and flowers to a concrete pillar and forming candles in the shape of Rypien's No. 37. Heisinger said the Jets would also likely honour Rypien in some manner this season.

In the meantime, the Jets organization is working through the grief of the loss of a man everyone called 'Rip.'

"This is all hard to put into words, it's been a challenging 24 hours," said Heisinger. "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.

"Through all this 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."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

More Rypien coverage C2, C3

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2011 C1

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