BLAIRMORE, Alta. -- It's hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a moment of such sadness.

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Opinion

BLAIRMORE, Alta. -- It's hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a moment of such sadness.

Rick Rypien was laid to rest Saturday in southwest Alberta's Crowsnest Pass, wreathed by the Rocky Mountains, just eight miles from the B.C. border.

The 27-year-old Rypien was found dead in his home in Coleman, Alta., last Monday after a 10-year battle with depression.

Close to 1,000 people came to the Albert Stella Memorial Arena in Blairmore for an emotional service on a sun-kissed afternoon in a valley cut out of the Rockies and bisected by the Crowsnest River.

Rypien played his minor hockey in the barn-style arena that was filled with family, friends and teammates he gained growing up in Crowsnest Pass and playing hockey with the Regina Pats, Manitoba Moose and Vancouver Canucks.

The memorial program featured a picture of a smiling Rypien in a Canucks jersey on the cover and a black and white photo of a more pensive Rypien inside.

"My overwhelming question is why?" said his uncle, Allan Rypien, in one of three eulogies to Rypien. "How could this happen? He had a great family, great friends and a great job... He fought this disease with everything he had in him. If you knew Rick he fought with everything he had in him. Unfortunately the disease won the battle. Be thankful the battle he faced is over."

Hockey feuds and macho personas were parked for the afternoon as men like Canucks GM Mike Gillis and Winnipeg Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger reached out to embrace and console each other.

NHL players came from across North America to say goodbye to their friend.

"I don't think we can be afraid to talk about the issues that Rick went through. I know he wanted that. It's up to us now to continue the legacy of a great young man and help those that go through the same issues as Rick," said Gillis. "Rick suffered from depression and it was an ongoing illness. When he was in an environment that he could control, he was fine and he was great. When he got into an environment he couldn't control he had great difficulty. We tried a lot of things and were there for him every step of the way and challenged it every step of the way, but there are things that occur that you can't overcome.

"I guess at the end of the day Rick couldn't overcome the illness he had. For everything he had accomplished in his life, it's remarkable that that's how powerful his illness was."

Jets owner Mark Chipman, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, director of communications Scott Brown, athletic therapist Rob Milette, assistant equipment manager Mark Grehan and winger Jason Jaffray were in attendance.

Former teammate Mike Keane and friend Kevin Kaiser as well as former Moose coaches Scott Arniel and Brad Berry were in the congregation.

Rypien was the strong, silent type on the surface but was sensitive and caring to those who saw him as more than a hockey player.

Rypien's former Canucks teammate Kevin Bieksa was a pallbearer and Canucks Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond, Manny Malholtra and Aaron Rome attended the service.

Other NHL notables included Ryan Walter, Kris Versteeg, Darcy Hordichuk, Garth Murray and NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider.

Rypien's depression has been linked back to the death of a girlfriend during his time in junior hockey. Twice during his time with the Canucks he took personal leaves to deal with his illness.

Heisinger and Gillis addressed a group of media, the two hockey bosses standing side by side, reaching out to grab one another's shoulder from time to time as they both attempted to keep their emotions in check.

"The system didn't fail Rick. Everybody did as much as they possibly could for him. He did as much as he could for himself," said Heisinger. "Nothing could be done. At the end of the day if Rick is happier where he is today, we should all be happier for him. Everybody in today's society faces different challenges. Rick was no different and he fought them like anybody else. Just, in the end, the demon that is depression won out."

Heisinger said there's no plan in place to honour or learn from Rypien's life and death, but that will change in time.

"Rick was a fantastic person. It's unfortunate the way it came to an end. But I'd go through this with Rick again in a heartbeat because he'd do the same for us. Rick was worth everything we did. Absolutely. I can't tell you I know a lot about depression, but I can tell you I have a lot more to learn and were not going to let Rick's tragedy go in vain," said Heisinger.

"We will learn more about this. Rick's message at the end was so much about other people and being able to help them. That message is left to us now and we're going to work on it and get it out there."

Gillis said the NHL's behavioural program, the Canucks and the Moose all worked to help the player.

"I'm proud to have known him. Proud to have thought of him as a friend, to have worked with him and shared some success with him," said Gillis. "We had access to the best doctors, the best programs. We had the ability to intervene. We had opportunity to try our hardest to do the best thing. I don't think there's an easy answer to any of this. I think it's going to be unfortunate for Rick's situation to get lumped into other situations because I don't think it's similar at all. I hope we can become more aware and become better... We were all hopeful and at different times thought we were making progress and then it would happen again. At the end of the day, we were confident he was getting and feeling better. We felt he was doing well."

The Canucks and Jets have repeatedly stressed Rypien did not suffer from addiction. This past season Rypien left the Canucks to enter the NHL's behavioural program and was loaned to the Moose for the post-season.

The Jets made him one of their first free agent signings this summer and he was expected to arrive in Winnipeg last Sunday.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca