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Rypien remembered for being unpretentious

The game goes on; it always does. But it wasn't the same this time. They looked for him to be at the rink that was his second home. They longed for him to stop by and offer a critique of their play, maybe drop a few one-liners about their lousy conditioning.

Only Rick Rypien didn't show, and for the guys who knew him and had just attended his memorial service at a different rink in Blairmore, Alta., it took everything they had to go onto the ice and play in the annual senior men's tournament at the Crowsnest Sports Complex.

"It's been a tough week," said Antonio Martinez, who was raised in the Crowsnest Pass, resides in Langley, B.C., and played in the tournament that Rypien used to supply with prizes – gloves, sticks, whatever he could give. "We've been to visit his family. We were at the service. It's like he should still be here."

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No one in this picturesque corner of Alberta is close to believing Rypien is gone, dead at 27 after losing a battle with depression. He was so full of determination, so brimming with energy, he had willed his way into junior hockey with the Regina Pats, then the National Hockey League with the Vancouver Canucks – as an undrafted player, no less.

On top of that, Rypien was an unpretentious sort who liked being around family and friends. It was a point raised several times during the eulogies at his memorial service attended by roughly 1,000 people, including Vancouver teammates Alex Burrows and Kevin Bieksa. Rypien not only came home every off-season, he worked a hockey school for young kids, trained older ones, then would do his own training by running from the bottom of Turtle Mountain to the top as fast as he could.

"These kids, they just loved him," said Marty Lant, another friend who found his way to the rink Saturday to play hockey. "They'd say, 'This is Rick Rypien. He knows my name.' And he knew all their names."

More than anything, what Rypien taught the kids in his five years of running the Rocky Mountain Ice Hockey School is that if he could make it, so could they. They just had to want it. Now, as one parent said, there are kids wanting to have Rypien's Canucks jersey No. 37 stitched onto their equipment. So they can remember.

As soon as you walk into the lobby of the Sports Complex, your eye is drawn to the five photographs of young hockey players that hang on a far wall. Below the photos are the players' jerseys and their numbers – 8, 7, 7, 13 and 19. All five area players died young, four in car accidents, one by drowning. One of the players, Stewart Schlender, was Rypien's age when he was killed.

Sadly, a photo of Rypien and his minor hockey jersey will soon be added to the wall.

"It was terrible," Martinez said while sitting in the arena lobby next to Lant, an usher at Rypien's memorial service. "It was just shocking. No one believed it. … I had texted [Rypien] when he signed with Winnipeg [Jets this summer]. He said he got No. 11 [his favourite number]. He was so excited."

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Few can understand what Rypien was going through. Twice he had taken a leave from the Canucks to sort things out. His general manager, Mike Gillis, who attended the memorial and spoke to the media afterward, said everything that could have been done was done. "We challenged it every step of the way," Gillis said.

"The system didn't fail him," Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger said. "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."

What the demon disease can't claim is how Rypien will be remembered by those who knew him well. Martinez detailed his fondest memory, how Rypien flew his family and closest friends to Vancouver. There were almost 20 people and Rypien had rented a boat for them to tour around Granville Island before arranging a special dinner. Then he rented a private suite at then GM Place so everyone could watch an Ultimate Fighting Championship event.

"The restaurant [for dinner] was a private setting and he played a video thanking everyone," said Martinez, one of the invited guests. "It was a year ago."

Back then, Rypien was on top of the world, the kid from Crowsnest Pass who had carved out a pro career and a reputation for being a gritty competitor who would fight for his teammates. What everyone here wanted Saturday was to see him again, to have him pop by the rink for the senior men's tournament so he could rib his pals or encourage them. Whatever they needed, Rypien supplied.

"He'd come out and bug us about our play," said Martinez, whose team lost badly Saturday. "Rick would have given it to us for that one."

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The game goes on; it always does.

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