Near the make-shift altar hung a framed Vancouver Canucks’ jersey – No. 37 and autographed – next to a Regina Pats poster that read Pure Hockey. Beneath the caption was a photo of Rick Rypien, corralling a loose puck.
That image of Rypien in action, full of life and hope, served as the backdrop for Saturday’s memorial service in the Alberta Stella Arena where he had played his minor hockey. Described as the little guy who could, Rypien had worked his way into the National Hockey League and become a hero here in the Crowsnest Pass only to lose the one fight he couldn’t win.
On a sun-kissed Saturday afternoon, roughly 1,000 people sat inside a hockey rink to remember a young man whose life ended far too soon. Earlier this week in his home in nearby Coleman, Rypien was found dead at the age of 27. Police said it wasn’t suspicious. It has since been confirmed Rypien took his own life after battling depression. Twice, the NHL spark plug performer and on-ice fighter had taken a leave of absence from the Canucks for what team officials dubbed personal reasons.
At his emotionally-charged memorial service, Rypien’s dark brown casket was wheeled down the aisle by several pall bearers, including former Canuck and Manitoba Moose teammate Kevin Bieksa. He was one of several Canucks in attendance as was Rypien’s cousin, former NFL quarterback and Super Bowl champion Mark Rypien.
“Why?” Allan Rypien, Rick’s uncle, asked in his eulogy. “He had a good family, good friends. He fought this disease with everything he had. It was much like a hockey game – sometimes you win, sometimes our opposition wins. The disease won the battle … We have to be thankful for the time we had him in our lives.”
Mike Gillis, the Vancouver Canucks’ general manager, spoke to the media after the nearly two-hour service and said mental health issues need to be addressed in a more public manner.
“I don’t think we can be afraid to talk of the issues he went through.
I know he wanted that to make sure we can do more for someone else,” Gillis said. “Rick suffered from depression. When he was in an environment that he could control, he was fine, he was great. When he got into an environment he couldn’t control then he had great difficulty. We challenged it every step of the way.”
Recently, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman commented on the deaths of Rypien and Derek Boogaard, who died in May after a deadly mix of alcohol and painkillers. Bettman said the league and NHL Players’ Association would look into their substance abuse and behavioural issue programs to see what more could be done.
Gillis insisted virtually everything was done for Rypien.
“The league had all the resources we could use. At the end of the day it wasn’t enough. We have access to the best doctors, the best programs. We had the opportunity to try our hardest to do the right thing,” Gillis explained. “I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this.”
Craig Heisinger, whose Winnipeg Jets had just signed Rypien for the coming NHL season, was equally emphatic in saying Rypien was far from neglected.
“The system didn’t fail him,” noted the Jets’ assistant GM. “Everybody in today’s society faces a different challenge. Rick fought them like everyone else. The demon depression won out.
“He’s at peace, we should all be.”
Asked what the NHL was going to better combat mental health matters, Heisinger replied, “Not sure, but we’re going to work at it.”
Rypien played parts of six seasons with the Canucks. He also played for the American Hockey League’s Moose. Although only 5-foot-11, 194 pounds, he played a hard game and was a favourite among teammates who admired his tenacity.