Brent Parker remembers a time when Rick Rypien didn't seem so troubled.
The president of the Regina Pats said that in Rypien's three-plus seasons with the Western Hockey League club, the feisty forward was quick to look you in the eye, offer a firm handshake, and offer a contented smile. Even when Rypien lost his girlfriend in a car accident, Parker thought his young player had bounced back as well as could be expected after an appropriate grieving period away from the club.
"I've been racking my brain, trying to think back to if there was any sign, anything, and I can't think of a single one," Parker said when asked about Rypien's battles with depression. "I never saw any indication, after he came back, that there was anything lingering."
Rypien was found dead at his home in Crowsnest Pass, Alta., on Monday, a "sudden but not suspicious" death, according to police. The 27-year-old played six seasons and 119 NHL games with the Vancouver Canucks before signing with the Winnipeg Jets this summer. A service is scheduled for Saturday in Blairmore, Alta.
"We're not doing well, it's hard," Rypien's mother Nola told The New York Times. "We're just trying to make funeral arrangements."
Rypien, who took two leaves of absence for off-ice issues during his brief NHL career, endeared himself to Canucks fans with his underdog story and willingness to fight much larger foes. Wednesday, those same supporters gathered to pay tribute to the fallen player at a fan-organized memorial outside Rogers Arena, where people queued to sign condolence books.
"The Canucks and everything they do for us, now it's our turn to give back," said 17-year-old Alex Ransford, a Grade 12 student from Richmond, B.C., who organized condolence books with her mother and friend. "The three of us were just going to come down and lay some flowers, but it turned out to be more than just us three."
The Ransfords have made plans, through the Canucks, to send the books to the Rypien family. They had already collected hundreds of signatures Wednesday afternoon outside the north plaza of Rogers Arena, where mourners huddled in silent observance before a makeshift memorial on a concrete pillar.
Rypien's fans attached cards, signs and photographs. Below the pillar, visitors left flowers, candles and the club's trademark white towels.
Everything that needed to be said was written on the wall:
"Forever a Canuck."
"You're with my Nana in heaven."
"Rest easy, fighter."
The Canucks said they intend to take as many items as possible to Rypien's funeral service.
Rypien wasn't drafted by either the WHL or the NHL, yet made the big leagues on determination. Parker remembers having to convince him that he was good enough to play major junior hockey, like his older brother Wes.
Bypassed again by the NHL, Rypien signed with the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose as a minor-league free agent and eventually earned a contract with the Canucks.
Just 5 foot 11 and 190 pounds, he earned a reputation for taking on – and dropping – much bigger opponents, fighting 39 times in his career, and using tactics taught to him by his boxing father, Wes, a former Golden Gloves champion.
"Watching all the compilations of Rick's fights on Youtube, he never hit a guy when he was down," said 28-year-old Greg Shackleton, who wore his Rypien sweater to the memorial. "I always felt that was a stand-up, classy move."