The legacy of Rick Rypien was alive and well Wednesday at Burton Cummings Theatre.
More than 1,500 grade-school students filled the theatre to take part in the first Project 11 Mental Health Wellness Summit, another milestone in the memory of Rypien, the former Manitoba Moose and Vancouver Canucks player who died Aug. 15, 2011, just before he was to arrive in Winnipeg as a member of the NHL’s Jets.
Rypien, 27, who for years had struggled with severe depression, had taken his own life.
For Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger — who first signed Rypien to a Moose contract in 2005 as an undrafted free agent and later worked tirelessly to help the player deal with his illness — Wednesday was a happy occasion.
Heisinger was surveying the crowd just before taking the stage to speak — along with Jets players Nikolaj Ehlers and Bryan Little, Team Canada soccer Olympian Desiree Scott and former CFL player Shea Emry — when someone asked what Rypien would have thought of a theatre full of children celebrating mental wellness.
"He would be absolutely thrilled," Heisinger said, smiling. "He’d be laughing his ass off that I have to do it. But this is tenfold what he would have expected. It’s remarkable."
Following the morning session, another 1,500 students attended an afternoon session featuring Moose goaltender Eric Comrie.
When Project 11 was launched by the True North Youth Foundation in 2014, there were 88 teachers and 2,024 students signed up for the program, designed to provide youth with the tools to deal with anxiety and stress. Today, there are more than 570 teachers and 11,500 students across Manitoba who are taking Project 11 curriculum as part of their classes. (True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. owns the Jets and Moose.)
Suzi Friesen, director of educational programs for TNYF, said the wellness program provides videos — many featuring professional hockey players — promoting a combination of fitness, nutrition and coping strategies to students grades 5 through 8. Also, stressing the importance of friendships and encouraging children to not only express their feelings, but for others to listen.
Other lessons involve healthy communication, the importance of friendship and resiliency.
"I think we’ve come to a time when teachers are open to talking about these important issues with their students," Friesen said. "I think a lot of us adults can think about a time when we were back in school and maybe wish that we were taught some coping strategies.
"We all have our stories and we want to encourage students to feel like they’re not alone and... not have them feeling stuck and holding onto some of those anxious feelings."
The summit, she added, was simply a culmination of the program’s growth.
"Having 3,000 students here today is very exciting, just to be under one roof and share some important messages that we’ve been learning about. We would love it to be an annual thing."
During the summit, the foundation was presented with a $10,000 grant from Bell Let’s Talk Community Fund by Dan McKeen, vice-chairman of Bell MTS. Friesen said the money will be used to expand Project 11 into northern Manitoba schools.
Dan Bohemier, a teacher from Norquay School in Winnipeg, said it has come to the point in today’s society, "If you’re not talking about mental health, you’re actually doing your kids a disservice. Everyone needs to know what are some things they can do when life is hard.
"The more we can get our students to talk about things that are bothering them, the more successful they’re going to be at school," Bohemier said. "Anyone feels anxiety, it doesn’t matter how old you are. These kids need to have tools to help them succeed in life, especially if they’re coming from homes and places where they have experienced trauma."
Involving Jets and Moose players in the video component of the program doesn’t hurt, either, in a hockey town.
"They infuse hockey into a lot of the curriculum, which appeals to lots of our kids," Bohemier said. "It’s just another piece that keeps kids engaged."
Little and Ehlers were on stage in a round-table session with TSN broadcaster Sara Orlesky, emphasizing the importance of teamwork and friendship.
"They’re people you can talk to whether you’re having a good day or a bad day," Little said. "We’re like a little family in the rink and in the dressing room.
"Sometimes, you want to hold things in. As you get older, you realize that might not be the best thing. It’s important to get things off your chest."
Added Ehlers, on dealing with rough patches: "It’s not easy. You want to go out there and do you’re best every single time and when you’re not able to do that, you get down a little. That’s why you have your teammates."
As for Heisinger, he said the results of Project 11 were sitting in the theatre seats. All 3,000 of them.
"I think the tangible way we see it help is just by the group that’s here today," he said. "But the most tangible way, other than an event like this, is when you speak in a smaller setting to maybe 200 or 300 kids. Seven years ago, when you did (that), maybe two or three kids hung around to talk to you. Now when you do that same group of 200 or 300 kids and 10 or 15 kids come to talk to you or hang around.
"And they don’t necessarily mill around anymore, they come with a purpose. You know that mental wellness hasn’t increased significantly over that time... but we’re starting to slowly remove the stigma that it’s no different than saying I sprained my ankle or broke my leg. It’s okay to talk about. That’s the tangible part."
Heisinger said Rypien was his first known experience with someone suffering from severe depression, and he’s encouraged by the strides made in awareness in just a few years.
"I don’t think we all realized what we were learning at the time," he said. "Maybe he was preparing us for this, but didn’t tell us."
Either way, the pain remains. Heisinger was emotional discussing the loss of Rypien seven years ago. He’s just as emotional today.
"You think it would be easier. Why is it not? I don’t know," Heisinger reasoned. "Would it be better if it (was easier)? I don’t have the answer to that, either. I just think this is a topic that hits home for me."
Heisinger paused, fighting back tears while rubbing his hand on the Project 11 patch on his chest, over his heart.
"And Ryper was a friend of mine," he said, finally. "And he’s still a friend of mine. Those type of relationships, when you’re invested in them, just don’t go away."
Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.