Deaths cast shadow on Winnipeg's brilliant summer

Rick Rypien celebrates his first NHL goal in a game against the Oilers in Vancouver, B.C., Dec. 21,...

Rick Rypien celebrates his first NHL goal in a game against the Oilers in Vancouver, B.C., Dec. 21, 2005. (ANDY CLARK/Reuters file photo)

TED WYMAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:43 AM ET

WINNIPEG - These are the best of times, these are the worst of times.

These are heady days, rarely seen before in our fair city.

We have a population collectively on Cloud 9, thanks to the return of the Jets, a blue-collar Blue Bombers team that has steamrolled through the first third of the CFL season and even a brilliantly warm, dry and mosquito-free summer in which to celebrate.

Even the Winnipeg Goldeyes, often an afterthought in this season of our content, are chugging along in first place with visions of a championship come September running the bases in their heads.

It’s hard to recall a previous time when Winnipeg was on such a high for any reason, let alone due to the influence of sports.

And yet, it has been a terribly sombre summer as well, with both the Bombers and Jets suffering through tragedies.

A month ago, the Bombers lost their most beloved coach when Richard Harris was felled by a heart attack. The team has soldiered on in his honour, winning every game so far with heavy hearts and drawing inspiration from a man who gave so much to his city, his team and his league.

This week, the Jets lost a family member of their own when Rick Rypien was found dead in his Alberta home. Despite battling depression for 10 years, the undersized Rypien carved out a pro hockey career, and in fact made it all the way to the NHL, by fighting well above his weight class and playing a scrappy style that earned the respect of players and coaches across the league.

Rypien obviously never played for the Jets (no one has played for this 2.0 version), but he was a big part of the True North organization when he played for the Manitoba Moose. His signing with the Jets this summer was proof of the organization’s faith in his recovery, after he was forced to leave the Vancouver Canucks to deal with his problems last season.

Sadly, Rypien will never get that second chance after he lost his toughest fight, with mental illness.

His death and that of Richard Harris, are reminders that while sports are an escape for players and fans alike, a fantasy world for some, these are real people with the same real issues shared by the rest of the real world.

Fortunately, sports are still an escape for players and fans alike and the games on the field or on the ice will allow people to deal with the shock and grief.

The Blue Bombers will continue to draw inspiration from the Big Teddy Bear as they march toward the playoffs and perhaps — dare we say it — even a Grey Cup behind a smothering defence. He will be there with them for every win and loss, every personal triumph and defeat.

Fans who are giddy about the return of the NHL to Winnipeg will be happy to know it’s a mere 53 days until the NHL regular-season puck drops at MTS Centre. Tempered excitement will build again until it reaches a fevered crescendo when the Montreal Canadiens come to town on Oct. 9.

Perhaps the Jets team that takes the ice this season will draw some inspiration from who Rick Rypien was as a hockey player.

A scrappy upstart who had to fight for every inch just to get in the league and constantly had to prove he belonged.

Come to think if it, that description fits the hockey team well.


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