After taking time away from his NHL career to battle depression, Rick Rypien finally appeared to be in a good place.
The scrappy centre, formerly with the Vancouver Canucks, recently signed with the Winnipeg Jets along with longtime friend Jason Jaffray. He appeared content and at peace and talked about the possibility of winning the Stanley Cup.
That's why news of Rypien's sudden death Monday came as a shock to Jaffray and others who watched Rypien battle his way, physically and mentally, into the NHL.
“Everyone knew he had some issues that he had to get taken care of last year and he was definitely a new man when he came back and ... he was definitely the happiest I'd ever seen him,” Jaffray said Tuesday from his home in Olds, Alta. “We actually had joked around about bringing a Cup back to Winnipeg.”
Rypien was scheduled to fly to Winnipeg on Sunday night to have his knee checked Monday, Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger said. But he never boarded that flight.
“He had left me a message Sunday morning ... he just wanted to know whether there was ice to skate at,” Heisinger said during a news conference Tuesday. “I spent some time trying to track him down (Monday) and was unable to do so.”
Rypien had been dealing with depression for at least a decade, said Heisinger, who was the GM of the Manitoba Moose when Rypien played for the AHL team. By the summer, Heisinger said, Rypien appeared to have gained the upper hand.
“He seemed really excited to be back here,” Heisinger said. “I think there was a comfort zone here for him.
“Either something happened very quickly or we all missed the boat.”
The Jets and Canucks confirmed Rypien's death in statements Monday night. The RCMP in Crowsnest Pass, Alta., said they received a call Monday afternoon concerning a “sudden and non-suspicious” death.
There was no immediate word on the cause of death.
Rypien, 27, spent parts of six seasons with the Canucks organization. He played only nine games with Vancouver last season and spent most of the year dealing with personal issues.
Jaffray, who played with Rypien in both Vancouver and Winnipeg, said Rypien did not talk much about his troubles.
“Even being his roommate, and on the road we did pretty much everything together ... he didn't like to talk about that kind of stuff a whole lot,” Jaffray said. “And guys knew not to pry because when you did try to pry, he kind of got uncomfortable.”
Rypien had been getting treatment, although Canucks GM Mike Gillis would not go into great detail.
“Over the course of the last three seasons, we participated in a variety of different initiatives with him and we were all really close with him,” Gillis said Tuesday in Toronto. “We had an understanding of what we thought was going on and had a number of outside agencies involved in assisting us and we felt we were on course.
“We felt he was making progress in a lot of different areas. When he signed with Winnipeg, we were all really happy for him.”
Rypien had signed a one-year, US$700,000 deal with the Jets. He had nine goals, seven assists and 226 penalty minutes in 119 career games with Vancouver.
Although small in stature, the five-foot-11, 190-pound Rypien never shied away from a fight. His tenacity made him a fan favourite.
“He was a guy who wouldn't back down from anyone. He was a guy that was definitely fearless,” Jaffray said. “He wasn't one of those tough guys that was just out there to fight.
“The guy could skate 100 miles an hour and he worked extremely hard at becoming a good hockey player.”
Canucks fans set up a small memorial outside Rogers Arena, pasting posters and flowers to a concrete pillar and arranging candles in the shape of Rypien's No. 37.
“No matter who was your favourite player, he was one of those players who, any time the team wanted energy or a spark, he was always the one to inject it,” said Calvin Ng, a 22-year-old from suburban Port Moody, B.C.
Don Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, said Rypien will be missed.
“All players and NHLPA staff are saddened to learn of Rick's passing,” he said in a statement. “He was a respected member of our association and will be greatly missed throughout the hockey community.
“Our sincere condolences go out to Rick's family, friends and many fans.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman offered similar sentiments.
“The National Hockey League sends its deepest condolences to the family, friends and teammates of Rick Rypien, who played the game with so much energy and emotion and whose passing fills us all with a sense of immeasurable sadness and sorrow,” he said.
Fans created a Facebook tribute page shortly after the reports of Rypien's death surfaced. Former and current teammates posted condolences on Twitter.
“R.I.P. to a fellow (No.) 37 sorry to see ya go, nicest guy I played with my time in Vancouver, sorry to see ya go buddy, see ya on the other side,” posted former teammate Brad Lukowich.
Brendan Morrison, another former Canucks teammate, also posted a tweet.
“In disbelief about Ripper. Sat beside him in the locker room in Van. Such a good kid with a huge heart Thoughts with his family,” Morrison said.
Rypien is the second active NHL player found dead in the off-season. Former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard died in May due to an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone.
Rypien — the cousin of former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien — left the Canucks twice over three years to deal with undisclosed personal matters.
Rypien, a native of Coleman, Alta., made headlines last October when he pushed a Minnesota Wild fan after leaving the ice following a fight during a game in St. Paul. Rypien was handed a six-game suspension and later apologized for the incident.
Rypien had two assists in 11 games with the Moose last season.
— with files from James Keller in Vancouver and Greg Strong in Toronto.