Lessons from Rypien tragedy

Rick Rypien's body was found in his Alberta home on Aug. 15, 2011. (BRIAN DONOGH/QMI Agency file...

Rick Rypien's body was found in his Alberta home on Aug. 15, 2011. (BRIAN DONOGH/QMI Agency file photo)

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:24 AM ET

WINNIPEG - Mental health. The very words carry a stigma.

For some reason, we don’t want to talk about illness in our brains, often brought on by chemical imbalances.

We’re conditioned to think it’s a sign of weakness. And if you’re an athlete, you don’t want to show weakness.

If you’re a hockey player who sweats nails and carries a reputation as someone who’d take on a steamroller, even more reason to keep your demons locked inside.

Rick Rypien’s got out the other day, killing him at the age of 27.

And leaving everybody who came into contact with him on a regular basis wondering what they could have done to save him.

Tanner Glass, his linemate in Vancouver and fellow Winnipeg Jets free agent signing, wondered it aloud over the phone from the West Coast.

“One of the first things that goes through your head is, ‘What could I have done? Could I have helped him?’” Glass said. “He was such a tough guy, and wasn’t a guy to talk about his emotions and feelings. As a friend, you wish you would have tried a bit more.”

Here in Winnipeg, Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger, part of Rypien’s inner support group, grappled with the tragedy as well as his own emotions in a courageous meeting with the local media.

“I never got any indication there was something that was going to trigger it,” Heisinger said. “I never got the sense there were any problems all summer. I spoke to other people in his support group and none of us had that sense. And that’s a small, tight-knit group.

“So either something happened very quickly, or we all missed the boat.”

How about this: we all miss the boat on this one, regularly.

How many of us have made a snide remark about somebody having “a few screws loose,” or seeing a “shrink.”

Mental illness carries a stigma because we allow it to.

We don’t understand it, so we mock it.

Twice in the last three years, Rypien left the Vancouver Canucks to deal with what everybody simply called “personal issues.”

Had he said he was seeking psychiatric help, you can bet he would have heard the catcalls from the stands when he returned.

Next season, Rypien was planning to show us another side of himself.

He’d talked to his agent about how this was going to be a breakout year, where he’d show us all he wasn’t just a fourth-liner with quick feet and rock-hard fists.

More importantly, he’d come to realize he could use his struggles to help others.

“The more that I go on, the more I can talk about it,” Rypien told reporters the day he returned from treatment to sign with the Manitoba Moose, in March. “Hopefully, one day I can help other hockey players that might be experiencing difficulty with whatever they’re dealing with off the ice.”

Watching from Vancouver, Glass saw his old linemate on TV that day and smiled.

“He looked great,” Glass said. “He had a sparkle in his eyes.”

This week, he’s left tears in everybody else’s.

“It’s a real challenge,” Heisinger acknowledged. “It’s hard to put into words. But you learn lessons from these things.”

We’d better.

Otherwise, it’s senseless.

“Rick always spoke about, once he had his situation under control, about trying to speak out and help other people,” Heisinger said. “At the end of the day, I hope something like this comes out of this.

“I guess I’m having trouble trying to see how it will. But I suppose at the end of the day, if Rick’s a lot happier today than he was yesterday, I’m happy for him.”

That Rypien was strong enough to get help speaks to his toughness.

That he lost this fight speaks to the seriousness of his illness.

We should all take note.


Photos