Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Let there be light

Dark secrecy surrounding depression must be lifted

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Something good must come from Rick Rypien's death.

At the end he was alone with only his disease whispering and gnawing at him until death silenced both his depression and his living essence.

There must be a way to replace despair with hope.

Rypien suffered from depression and his disease isolated him from family, friends, teammates and society.


Somehow a way must be found to open the door for the afflicted to be heard and not allow depression to have the definitive voice in their lives.

"Keeping depression a secret makes the isolation of the disease much worse," said Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba's director of administration Adam Milne. "Depression and mental illness already separates you because your feelings aren't the same as the average person. Keeping it a secret makes it a mountain you can't climb over."

Rypien was not an addict -- he and his employers in Vancouver and Winnipeg made that clear. But he was sick and the secrets surrounding the illness only added pressure to an already difficult situation. In AA they have a saying, "You're only as sick as your secrets."

Twice Rypien left the Vancouver Canucks during his six seasons with the team to deal with personal issues. Whispers and secrets surrounded those leaves. Rypien came to Winnipeg to join the Manitoba Moose following his last leave and he spoke about someday telling his story.

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

The world of pro hockey is too often close-minded and judgmental. Gay players don't tell teammates of their orientation. Depression isn't something one NHLer shares with the guy in the stall next to him.

"Maybe it would have been better had Rick been able to lean on some teammates and guys there for support," said NHLPA adviser and former Rypien teammate Mathieu Schneider. "But those type of things have always been kind of taboo. You just don't talk about it."

Rypien's death can hopefully be a catalyst to more openness.

"If professional athletes could step up and talk about their struggle with depression it would give kids, particularly men who rarely ever talk about it, an example that they don't have to keep it to themselves," said Milne. "If their heroes were suffering through the same thing they are, it gives them a connection to the world they don't have right now. If the people they are looking up to despite having this, depression, then they can succeed too. It can give them hope. It can give them something to look forward to and a hope that this won't define them for their whole lives."

Schneider spoke to the Free Press on Thursday and agreed that silence is the enemy.

"What you're battling with is a cultural thing. Not just in sports. People like to keep their work life separate from their private life," said Schneider. "Your teammates are your closest friends and they know more about you than just about anyone. But it's a personal preference. Are we going to have team meetings to discuss personal issues? That's not very realistic."


"Homosexuality in pro sport, it's extremely difficult for them to come out. But a role model that has an issue in their life that isn't normally associated with sports can provide great motivation. Rick Rypien being able to reach the NHL under the circumstances of his battle with depression is very admirable."

Rypien signed with the Winnipeg Jets this summer and his death is something the organization won't forget or ignore. That's not Mark Chipman's way.

When Atlanta Thrashers forward Dan Snyder died in a drunk driving accident, Chipman made immediate changes to his team's policy in regards to alcohol. Players were no longer allowed to drink at the arena following games and players were not allowed to drive their own cars to sanctioned team parties, but were given cab chits.

Chipman's Jets will install protocol and attempt to foster a culture where depression isn't kept quiet, but discussed . Maybe the Jets dressing room can be a place where depression is viewed as a disease and players aren't reluctant to discuss it.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in Toronto on Wednesday that the league would be looking at its substance abuse and behavioural health program to make sure they're doing all they can for players.

"The program has helped so many players but you never hear about the success stories. It's a tragedy like this that has us looking at our protocols," said Schneider. "I can assure you we'll look at what we do."

No one is to blame for Rypien's death. Many, including Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger, worked to give Rypien hope, but his disease was powerful and swept him up.

The tragedy underscores that more work needs to be done. Instead of an ending this must lead to a beginning. The beginning of more light and less secrecy.

Depression walks among us, from newsrooms to factory floors to hockey teams.

It will not be ignored. To try and do so is futile.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2011 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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