By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
“Rick Rypien’s goal was that once he was healthy, he wanted to be able to share his knowledge of what he lived through during that time in his life and what he learned in the years as he got older.” – Craig Heisinger
Bell Let’s Talk Day is approaching, so this seems a good time to highlight Rick Rypien. Ryp fought many battles on the ice. He played six seasons in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks and Manitoba Moose (which was an American Hockey League and then farm team of the Canucks). No matter what foes Rypien encountered—and many were often bigger than him—he usually held his own (Rypien was 5’11” and weighed 190 lbs). Compared to other NHL tough guys, Rypien was considered small. But if his heart and desire equated to size, he was a giant above everyone else.
Unfortunately, off the ice, Rypien was fighting depression—an invisible enemy that Rypien had to face every day. During his time with the Canucks, Rypien took two personal leaves of absence. Rypien confided about his depression to teammate, Kevin Bieksa, who became a close friend. Bieksa, in an interview with Sportsnet, recalls not being familiar with mental illness because it was not a topic that was discussed. “Up until five years ago I had never heard anything about mental illness in my career,” Bieksa said. “Everything I ever heard was ‘be mentally tough’—coaches would say it means sucking it up and playing through injury and not complaining and doing whatever it takes to perform. So certainly, I’m hoping it’s better now, but we have [a long] way to go.”
Rypien was born on May 16, 1984. The Coleman, Alberta native played his junior hockey with the Regina Pats (2001-2005). He was undrafted out of junior. But Rypien caught the attention of Craig Heisinger, then general manager of the Manitoba Moose—who signed Rypien to a contract. The two men developed a close friendship (Rypien also disclosed his battle with depression to Heisinger). On December 21, 2005, Rypien made his NHL debut with the Vancouver Canucks in a home game against the Edmonton Oilers. Rypien scored his first NHL goal on his first shot during his first shift.
Former Canuck coach, Alain Vigneault, loved Rypien’s style of play as he also coached Rypien when both men were with the Manitoba Moose. In an interview published online by the Vancouver Canucks in October 2011, Vigneault recalled Rypien’s solid work ethic and ability to change the pace of a hockey game: “He was a hard-nosed, physical forward. He came to play hard. He could throw checks that would be tempo changers and get the other team upset. Someone would then get up after him and he’d take care of himself.”
Rypien fought many players above his weight class. Notably, Rypien took on Hal Gill (then with Montreal), who was 6’7”. Later, Rypien fought another big opponent, Boris Valábik of the Atlanta Thrashers (same height as Gill). The fight was memorable as footage shows Valábik mocking Rypien before they dropped the gloves. In the early part of the scrap, Valábik connected with a few punches. But Rypien eventually got the upper hand, tugging Valábik’s jersey over his head. Then Rypien proceeded to deliver several left punches, with Valábik dropping to his knees.
In July 2011, Rypien became a free agent and signed a contract with the Winnipeg Jets. He held a press conference and appeared to be in good spirits: “I’m probably more excited [than] I’ve ever been. And just the fact that I get to come back where I started my professional career.” Tragically, a month later on August 15— Rypien died by suicide, and he was 27-years old.
Kevin Bieksa remembered how difficult it was hearing the news of his friend’s passing. “It’s a little bit of a blur [….] We just sat around talking about it, crying for hours,” Bieksa said in the same Sportsnet interview. “You start to think about what you could have done to prevent this. Did we do everything? What more could we have done?” In the 2016 TSN documentary, Believe in Ryp, Craig Heisingershared a heartbreaking story about the night Rypien would take his own life. Heisinger said he always left his phone on because Rypien frequently called him when he needed someone to talk to. “I can remember going home the night of August 15, 2011, and putting my phone in the same place, but I turned it off,” Heisinger said as began to shed tears. “Not sure why I did but I did. And it wasn’t on purpose, but obviously it wasn’t going to ring.”
After Rypien’s death, the Vancouver Canucks and the Canucks for Kids Fund launched the website mindcheck.ca in 2012. The site provided access to mental health information and resources. It later transitioned to foundrybc.ca, an online website to assist young people (ages 12 to 24) in helping improve their mental health and well-being. In addition, the Canucks hosted Hockey Talks night (2013 till 2020)—a forum to promote positive discussion and rid stigma surrounding mental illness (14 other NHL teams hosted a Hockey Talks night in 2020).
In 2013, Project 11 was unveiled—providing Manitoba schools with a positive mental health curriculum (kindergarten to grade eight). Today, Craig Heisinger is the senior vice-president and director, hockey operations, and assistant general manager for the Winnipeg Jets. He reflects on his late friend and the importance of Project 11. “It strikes me how important it was for Rick to be able to help kids especially in the middle school age group,” Heisinger said in a statement to the Other Press. “He and I talked about that often—and not on and off, quite continuously—and it was his goal that once he was healthy, he wanted to be able to share his knowledge of what he lived through during that time in his life and what he learned in the years as he got older […] He wanted to be able to share [his story]. In the end, as much as we do lots of the talking and teaching […] what’s important is that Rick’s legacy is able to live on.”
In a February 2015 interview filmed by the Canucks, Kevin Bieksa hopes Rypien’s story will help remove stigma that has been long associated with mental illness: “I just think, don’t suffer in silence. You have to share your problems. It’s not a weakness, it’s a sickness. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. If you’re suffering, you have to get help. You have to tell somebody.”