It's visible every day and was so especially on this day. Right there on the left lapel of Craig Heisinger's suit jacket was a now familiar pin, the letters RR inside a Winnipeg Jets logo in honour of the late Rick Rypien.
"Geez, I wear this pin on everything... there's not many days when I don't think about Rypper," began Heisinger, tears welling. "I wear it. My kids wear it on their helmets. It's important."
On Monday the Jets True North Foundation unveiled some of the details of Project 11, a youth education plan that focuses on positive mental-health awareness. It's been launched as part of the "Hockey Talks" initiative that will run during the month of February and be promoted by all seven Canadian National Hockey League teams.
But this is about more than just playing the good corporate citizen for the True North organization. The initiative is especially important to many in the organization who were devastated in the summer of 2011 when Rypien, who had played with the Manitoba Moose and had signed with the Jets for their inaugural season, took his own life. Rypien had long been battling depression and dreamed of one day helping promote mental-health awareness.
Project 11 (his uniform number) is the beginning of fulfilling that dream.
"When Rick wanted to get the story out there he had the opportunity to make a powerful message," said Heisinger. "I knew what he lived through and his passion to get it out there. I think it was going to get there... it seemed like the right time was coming and before his untimely passing it seemed like it was just around the corner.
"I think he would be happy because his focus had always been to try to help other people. It took him a long time to understand he wasn't the only one. He always thought he was a burden, that he was the only one. And that's clearly not the case."
Project 11 will be a resource document for teachers in grades 5-8, which will be launched in September 2014 to help promote positive mental health.
The Jets will host Hockey Talks on Feb. 7 as they take on the Toronto Maple Leafs at the MTS Centre. That night the Jets will use in-house messaging to raise awareness of mental-health issues and also have mental-health resource guides available to fans. As well, Mike Keane will be on the concourse signing limited Rick Rypien hoodies for $150 each, with all proceeds going towards mental-health research.
Limited edition Hockey Talks T-shirts will be sold throughout February and at all six Jets home games. Jets players will also sport a Hockey Talks decal on their helmets during the month.
One in five Canadians will experience a mental-health problem or illness in their lifetime and approximately 70 per cent of mental-health problems and illnesses begin during childhood or adolescence.
"This is near and dear to our heart and our foundation," said Dwayne Green, the executive director of the Winnipeg Jets True North Foundation. "Obviously, you know the impact Rick had on our organization. But as a formal educator, I know how difficult it is for youth to talk about this and it's hard for educators to find the appropriate ways to communicate that with youth. We're hoping Project 11 will be the avenue and the means to be able to normalize the conversation and allow kids a safe venue to be able to open up."
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