08/16/2011 at 12:00pm EDT
I always liked Rick Rypien, and it wasn’t particularly because of his game or even because of his oft-celebrated fists. It was because of his struggles as a man, as an ordinary person facing very painful—and painfully ordinary—struggles, that he always held my attention during his tenure with Vancouver and Manitoba.
In a business that demands so much perfection, and where one is likely to endure so much condemnation for not achieving it, Rypien always struck me as a very courageous individual.
What I got most from following Rick Rypien over the years was a far deeper appreciation for players as people, not simply as pawns in our favourite game.
It was some years ago (2006, 2007?) when he suffered his first serious personal setback that I was aware of. It was depression, it seemed pretty clear at the time, though I don’t recall now if it was ever explicitly stated. Regardless, Rypien didn’t hide from the debates going on about his career. He acknowledged enough for us to know that he was enduring a very difficult time in his life. His private life remained private—meaning, the details of his situation weren’t all over the hockey news—but he willingly talked to the press about the fact he had indeed been struggling.
Rypien was not a superstar. He wasn’t even a could-be-superstar. He was just a hockey player… but a very good hockey player, as evidenced by his steady AHL and NHL contracts, and one with an excellent sense of his own talents. He was a strong fighter who knew his role, and while he struggled with that label at times, he continued to work hard, doing what was expected of him.
Despite that, I don’t think the hockey-fighter definition always sat well with him, either. I’m sure more will be written about this by people with better memories than I, but I do recall an interview some time ago where he expressed that he felt his talents deserved more consideration than only being a team’s token “tough guy.” He wanted to be utilized as more than that, whatever ‘more’ there might be.
In all honesty, I don’t know whether Rypien could have ever been a great deal more than the player that he was, but I do firmly believe he was more than just some random tough guy. He voluntarily risked a promising and lucrative career in order to try healing his personal demons. Living in the public eye—not to mention within the tough-guy culture of hockey—that took a lot of guts.
The NHL isn’t a business that tolerates imperfection well, largely because it doesn’t have to. While it may sound cruel, there are too many players of Rypien’s skill level to make anyone irreplaceable. But in spite of that, he stepped away from his hockey career more than once in order to take care of himself, and then fought his way back into the business. Literally and figuratively.
Rypien didn’t bury his weaknesses, he faced them. Or rather, he did his very best to face them, which is more than many other players might have done. More than many other people, period.
My condolences to Rick’s family. I hope they know he’ll be remembered by some of us as much more than simply a hockey player. He may have lost his personal war, but I would bet that he inspired many people with his fight along the way.
I’m just so saddened that his story has ended this way. While we don’t know the details of his death, they can’t possibly matter as much as his life, where I often thought he demonstrated a courageous spirit.
It shames me to admit that I actually outlined portions of this post weeks ago, when I first learned Rick Rypien had signed a contract with the Winnipeg Jets. Even just saying goodbye to him as a player in the Canucks organization, I wanted to share my impressions of him, since he had such an impact on me as a fan. But for whatever reason, I’d set that post aside to work on ‘later.’
Truthfully, I think I put it on hold because I wasn’t sure how to say what an interesting individual I thought he was without seeming overly-sentimental. But I deeply regret that now. I wish I was sharing these thoughts about a man who was about to move on to bigger-and-better things in Winnipeg, and not as an epilogue to his life.
Rest in peace…