Rick Rypien was never drafted into the WHL, but he became a charismatic captain of the Regina Pats, scoring his only ever hat trick in his final home game as a thank you to their fans.
He was never drafted into the NHL, but he made it there through sheer hard work, fighting men four or five inches taller than him with regularity.
To all those that knew him, Rypien was a battler, although sadly one of his biggest battles was off the ice.
And it was one the popular former Vancouver Canuck ultimately lost.
Rypien’s body was discovered by his father, Wes, at his off-season home in Coleman, Alta., on Monday morning. After years of suffering from depression – something that has affected other family members and which threatened several times to end his hockey career – the illness took his life.
By Tuesday, all 2,000 residents of the town of Coleman were in mourning for the only NHL player they had ever called their own.
Flags flew at half mast at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, where Rypien had made a name for himself as a win-at-all-costs minor leaguer and recently signed as a free agent with the Jets.
That had been a happy time, only a month ago, and he had talked with those close to him this summer about his fresh start, about making a bigger impact and about putting his troubled past behind him.
“Obviously he’s had his battles,” said Allain Roy, Rypien’s long-time agent and friend. “Everybody supported Rick, from his family to his teammates, everybody was first class as far as how they dealt with everything.
“He was a warrior on and off the ice. But with a big heart. It’s sad that it ended this way. Everybody is in a state of shock still.”
Rypien’s battle with depression was always kept quiet during his time with the Canucks, even during two extended leaves of absence that team officials were careful to note were not drug or alcohol related.
The first public acknowledgement of what his off ice problems were came only on Tuesday, as Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger, the man who had signed Rypien as a free agent out of junior to play in the AHL, knew intimately what had gone on.
Both Roy and Canucks GM Mike Gillis declined to comment on his struggles with depression, although Gillis outlined how they had helped him in his fight.
“We relied on experts,” Gillis said. “And we relied on both NHLPA and NHL doctors. We relied on different facilities… I felt strongly that we were headed on a really positive course. It didn’t turn out that way.”
“Did we see any signs?” Heisinger said. “No we didn’t.”
Gillis had believed Rypien hit a turning point after an incident in Minnesota last October where he grabbed a fan, earning a six-game suspension and a sit down with league officials.
Not long after, Rypien’s second leave of absence began, marking the end of his NHL career.
“The way he handled himself in that hearing and the conversations that we had afterward, how committed he was, that’s going to stick with me the rest of my life,” Gillis said.
Even though Rypien ultimately played only 119 NHL games – little more than a full season – his story had become well known, as his father was a Canadian boxing champ who trained both his hockey playing boys to throw punches just as he had for years.
Rypien gained respect for taking on fighters well out of his weight class, as the scrappy 5-foot-11, 195-pound winger was branded the toughest pound-for-pound scrapper in the league.
He often listed his father and older brother, Wes Jr., as his inspiration, saying at one point that his family was “the biggest part of everything because of the support they give me.”
After multiple teams offered Rypien a contract this summer, Roy said one thing he’ll never forget is how much he wrestled with telling those he turned down that he was going to the Jets.
“He had such a hard time calling the teams to say no,” Roy said. “It was almost comical. He felt so bad turning down another team. I think that typifies the type of person he was.”
Roy added that he was always struck by Rypien’s deep affinity for the Crowsnest Pass area in Alberta, where he grew up, hosted a hockey school and did charity work every year.
“He was one of those guys that really wanted to give back a lot,” Roy said. “A couple months ago, he was asked to speak at his old elementary school and you could tell that meant a lot to him. He was pretty proud to be able to do that.
“The sad part is he and I talked about how this was going to be his breakthrough year. He was going to show everybody that he was a lot more of a player than people thought.”
With a report from Matthew Sekeres in Vancouver