VANCOUVER -- It was late December 2004 and the Regina Pats had just returned from the Western Hockey League-imposed holiday break.
Players were sitting around the dressing room sharing with each other the most cherished gift they received under the Christmas tree that year when it got to be their captain's turn. While his teammates had boasted about luxury items such as laptops, video game systems and mobile phones, Rick Rypien's best present was a pair of boxing shoes.
"It just reflects back to his humbleness and sense of appreciation for everything he got," said Regina Pats head coach Curtis Hunt. "It wasn't about the bling, it was about whatever helped him become a better player and help get him to where he wanted to go."
Rypien was found dead in his southwestern Alberta home on Monday afternoon. No cause of death has been provided, but police don't consider it suspicious.
It didn't take long for word to spread, rocking the entire hockey community, but maybe nowhere more so than the Saskatchewan capital, where the 27-year-old bled red, white and blue for three years. The Pats were one of the youngest teams in the league at the time, and night in and night out the five-foot-11, 190-pounder took on all-comers, some of them as much as seven inches taller and 60 pounds heavier.
"He had to answer the bell every night to the other team's toughest guy and a majority of the time he'd come out on top," said then-Pats director of scouting Todd Ripplinger, now the director of development for the Vancouver Giants. "For a while no one would even come after him, he had that kind of reputation. Pound-for-pound he was one of the toughest guys who played for the Pats and his teammates and the fans here loved him for it. They still do."
It's no secret Rypien had battled personal demons over his professional career. Still, it came as a surprise to many within the Pats organization when it was revealed on Tuesday that Rypien had fought depression for the past 10 years, dating back to his time in Regina.
The time-frame coincides with an incident that has left then-general manager and current team president Brent Parker questioning himself. Rypien's girlfriend died in a car accident coming to see him play during his second year.
"You could tell he was hurting after that but he was just very stoic -- he just kept so much to himself," said Parker. "I don't want to say he was guarded, but he was very private, almost shy. But he seemed to deal with it as well as anyone could. You know it was certainly something I thought of when I heard the news (Monday) and knowing what he went through the last while.
"You start wondering was that a trigger point? Was there something we should have done more at that time or did we miss something? Did we miss some signs?"
Maybe the best example of the person Rypien was came a few months after he was given his new boxing shoes. With the Pats out of the playoff race and with other team's looking to bolster their lineup for post-season success, the 20-year-old was given the option of being moved at the trade deadline. But Rypien would have none of it, telling Parker he wanted to finish his junior career a Pat and that part of his legacy would be to show the younger guys how to work and compete.
"I just feel so bad for his family right now and as he's grown and matured the close group of friends that he has created since leaving Regina," said Hunt. "Brent had a quote from the organization that I echo, Rick was everything you wanted in a player, a leader and a person. He's going to be missed."
-- Postmedia News