On a kitchen wall in his mountain-view home, there is a painted inscription that reads: “We cannot direct the winds but we can adjust our sails.” Almost eight months after Rick Rypien's death, Wes Rypien Jr. is learning how difficult it is to adjust.
He can't watch hockey on television. Even the start of another Stanley Cup playoff run by his younger brother's former team, the Vancouver Canucks, holds little interest. It's not that Wes loathes the game. It's just that it's still too fresh. Time is supposed to ease the pain, he admits over coffee. Time isn't doing its job.
When news broke last August that 27-year-old Rick Rypien had succumbed to depression and killed himself, it stunned the hockey world and devastated the Rypien family. Father Wes Sr. and mother Shelley have yet to speak publicly about their son's passing. Instead, it was decided Wes would take the lead and organize a charity golf tournament this August in conjunction with the soon-to-be-renamed Rick Rypien Memorial Hockey School.
Those duties, along with lending support to the Canucks' mindcheck.ca initiative, a website for people to discuss mental health issues, have kept Wes occupied. He is willing to talk about his brother, although some matters are still too personal. As Kevin Bieksa, Rick's closest friend on the Canucks, puts it: “After all the ceremonies, the memorials and the recognition nights are over with, they're still stuck with a big hole in their family. Other people move on ... the family's still dealing with it.”
But there are some things the Rypiens want to say, especially when it comes to Rick's death being included with those of fellow NHL enforcers Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak. Boogaard's family had his brain analyzed by Boston University researchers who discovered he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Boogaard died of an accidental alcohol and drug overdose but his brain damage was believed to be caused from repeated head trauma. Another former NHL fighter, Bob Probert, who died of a heart attack in 2010, was also diagnosed with CTE. It is not known if Rypien suffered concussions or if his brain was donated for research.
Wes, though, is adamant fighting had no bearing on his brother's fate.
“We were angry that people said Rick's job in hockey had anything to do with depression,” he says.
“People who were anti-fighting were trying to reach for something,” Wes adds. “Just speaking about Rick, [fighting]had nothing to do with it. He enjoyed his role. It was the same thing when people were speculating Rick's off-ice problems were drug related. Doctors said that wasn't the case.”
Bieksa and Rypien played together in the AHL and NHL. The veteran defenceman doesn't believe fighting contributed to Rypien's demise, either.
“For Rick, I know fighting was definitely not an influence on him,” Bieksa says. “He liked to fight. I don't think he stressed about it or lost sleep the night before. We talked about it a lot. We had the same beliefs. It was more like a chess game for us.”
Noted neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator from Toronto Western Hospital states science has shown “concussions lead to depression and depression leads to suicide. In many circumstances, you can connect the dots.” Yet he cautions, “Without exact details it's difficult to connect those dots.”
What is irrefutable is that Rypien's mood changed as he got older. As kids, Wes and Rick grew up in the Crowsnest Pass in southwestern Alberta with a love for hockey and a dad who had been a Canadian boxing champion in his younger days. The boys played hockey anywhere they could - on the street, on frozen rivers, even on the Hillcrest and Coleman Tennis Courts, which parents would flood in the winter so their kids could skate.
Rick's favourite player was Theo Fleury of the Calgary Flames, a little guy with skill and tenacity. The smallish Rick exemplified those traits, earning a spot with the WHL Regina Pats and eventually a minor-league contract with the AHL Manitoba Moose, the Canucks' farm team. Wes played for the Calgary Hitmen and had a training-camp tryout with the Columbus Blue Jackets. That Rick would make it to the NHL as a scrapper was never a consideration.
“He was good enough when we were younger to have always played up until we got to peewee,” Wes says. “He was very skilled. If you had told me he would be aggressive and fighting in the NHL, my dad and I definitely wouldn't have believed it.”
Rick took to the role with vigour. He trained with his brother and sometimes the two would argue and wrestle, then forget about it. Seemingly, Rick had it made. He was in the NHL, earning good money and beloved by teammates for taking on all comers, including 6-foot-7 Hal Gill.
Yet, something was wrong.
While in Vancouver, he was often reserved and withdrawn. When he was on leave from the Canucks during the 2008-09 season, he returned home, sullen. He wasn't eating, wanted to be left alone. Bieksa showed up and convinced Rick to return to Vancouver.
“He wasn't like that when he was younger,” Wes says of his brother. “As he got older, it was like the flick of a switch. I didn't know if he wasn't handling it well. I definitely didn't handle it the right way. I'd say, 'Man up.' For both of us, that attitude took him a long way in hockey and me a little way.”
Wes insists the Canucks and Rypiens did all they could for Rick. The mom and dad, although divorced, spent time in Vancouver watching over their son. He went to counselling. There were constant phone calls, text messages to friends who would check in on Rick and report back how he was doing. The last time Wes saw his brother was at a guest/member golf tournament in Spokane, Wash., with their cousin Mark Rypien, the former NFL quarterback. At the wind-up social, Rick asked Wes to stick around; Wes said he was meeting up with some friends.
“I look back at it and there was a real sad look on his face,” says Wes, who left Spokane and returned to his reclamation mining work in Fort McMurray. “After that, he knew he had the hockey school [in August in Coleman] I called him about it and got one-word answers. I texted friends to check on him. He went to my dad's and had a talk. He was struggling with things. I just thought he was a little angry.”
Wes says that through all the down times he never suspected his brother would take his own life. No one did. The Winnipeg Jets, who had signed Rypien to a one-year contract for the 2011-12 season, were eagerly anticipating his arrival on Monday, Aug. 15.
But when Rypien didn't respond to text messages or phone calls, then failed to check in for his flight to Winnipeg, the worrying began. When the Coleman RCMP confirmed Rypien's death, everyone was shocked.
No one felt Rick would ever sink that deep. Even after he had shoved a taunting fan in Minnesota and was given another leave of absence from the Canucks, the feeling was he would come around. He always had before, especially when he was home in the summer surrounded by friends and able to train by running to the top of Turtle Mountain. Those were happy times, the ones Wes and his family cling to as they try to emerge from their hurt.
“It's not like I could have done more, just be a little more compassionate and supportive,” Wes says. “Everyone will handle things differently. You don't know what everyone is going through. ... Now you get a small taste of what he actually went through on a daily basis.”
The hope now is that the retelling of Rick's struggles will create a better understanding of depression and its onset. Through mindcheck.ca, Bieksa believes that's happening.
“From the tweets that I get and the e-mails that I get, it has already saved lives,” Bieksa says. “So that was our goal, to save one life, to help one adolescent, and it's done that several times from what I've heard. I hope it keeps moving forward, gets more steam and awareness.”
In the aftermath of Rypien's death, the NHL promised it would evaluate its behavioural health program with the NHL Players' Association. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly answered by e-mail that the review “is in process.” As for Wes, he is waiting for the right words to come before writing a mindcheck.ca testimonial about his brother. Until then, there are events to arrange and moments to recall. The good ones help adjust the sails.
With a report from David Ebner in Vancouver