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Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks sports fresh stitches in his nose as a result of his fight with Ian Laperriere of the Colorado Avalanche during their game at General Motors Place on December 2, 2006. (Jeff Vinnick/JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES)
Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks sports fresh stitches in his nose as a result of his fight with Ian Laperriere of the Colorado Avalanche during their game at General Motors Place on December 2, 2006. (Jeff Vinnick/JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES)

Ian Brown

The NHL enforcers who go down fighting Add to ...

Rick Rypien is never smiling in the photographs that appeared after he took his life on Monday. An edge of watchfulness, a blank, unimpressed fear was as much as the former Vancouver Canuck enforcer would allow himself. Unimpressed with himself, the pictures say, but all the videos show you why he took to fighting. You never really see him start to brawl: One moment he isn't, the next he is, a furious instant fugue, his eyes half closed, arms wide, body so close to his enemy he could be hanging on as much as he's hitting – as if he is trying to hammer away a wall between himself and another, preferable place. Fighting for his life is the expression that comes to mind. Never quite scared, but never not desperate.

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As news of Ripper's end spilled across the country this week, tributes from his fans and fellow players contradicted his tough-guy rep as a scrappy enforcer (5 foot 11, 190 pounds) who would take on anyone of any size on any team he played (226 penalty minutes in 119 games). This was a guy who was definitely fearless. He could skate 100 miles an hour. The nicest guy I ever played with.

Mr. Rypien, 27, is the third National Hockey League enforcer to die prematurely in the past year. Derek Boogaard, 28, the former New York Rangers enforcer, expired in May from an overdose of alcohol and oxycodone. The supreme enforcer Bob Probert, no stranger to drugs and booze, collapsed unexpectedly last summer from a heart attack and couldn't be revived. He was 45.

Mr. Rypien's demon was depression; he needed two leaves of absence from the Canucks to fight “undisclosed personal problems,” and his father – a former Golden Gloves champion – admitted this week that depression has run in the family.

What he was suicidal about awaits disclosure; whether his depression was partly related to chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by an enforcer's constant hockey fights will be answered only when scientists examine his brain. But reducing Rick Rypien's suicide to hockey policy misses the point of his career and his sport.

Mr. Rypien was one of the NHL's storied enforcers – the goons who are the game's accidental warriors. Like Laraque and McSorley and Domi and all the others tough enough to be known by one name, Mr. Rypien protected his teammates by crushing opponents. That was his job. It was the centre of his life, a conceivable cause of his death, the setting of some of his happiest moments and the source of his most complex and human self. This is the overlooked inner life of the goon.

Slugging to survive

An NHL enforcer's career is complicated from the start because fighting is often the only way such a player can stay in the league. Mr. Rypien fought his way into the NHL, without benefit of being drafted. He played a handful of minutes a game, and performed the same tasks each shift: subdued opponents who threatened his stars, administered payback and roused the flagging spirits of his team. The job almost always involved violence.

Gord Donnelly, an enforcer who spent 10 years in the NHL, recently told me how he started playing rough. “You play hockey because it's fun. But then you have to evolve into something else if you want to stay in the league. And that's hard, unless you are a really mean guy.”

Fighting scared

Like most enforcers, Mr. Donnelly didn't like fighting. Like most enforcers, he was scared every time he went on the ice. (He's still a solid rectangle of a guy into his 40s.) “Of course. Scared to death. Or, certainly, on edge. Not to lose the fight. But to lose and be embarrassed in front of 20,000 people,” not counting the millions shouting at the TV.

In other words, the role of the enforcer is to enact a performance in character. Allain Roy, Mr. Rypien's agent, disputes most generalizations about enforcers, but “the one constant I've seen is that all of the enforcers, they're very nice people.”

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