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Sick, not weak: the other reason why I love hockey

May 23, 2019

It's easy to become a hockey fan. Many fans love the sport because they either grew up watching the sport, lived in a city with a NHL team, or you fell in love with it by surprise. I’d like to say that I became a fan by all three of these aforementioned reasons. Recently, the well respected National Hockey League is overwhelmingly supportive of their network and communities when it comes to the discussion of mental health, relative to other major professional sports leagues.

A decade ago, communities were less aware of the implications and stigma around mental health and the topic was highly sensitive to general public. Available resources have encouraged us to understand mental health and has destigmatized the topic of mental health today. Platforms and supportive communities have been developed to encourage open conversations about the topic.  

Despite the improvements we've made, there is still a long way to go in order to destigmatize mental health – especially in professional sports like ice hockey. Athletes were traditionally portrayed as being tough, immune to the weaknesses, and accustomed to the ridicule they may face. People may believe that something simple such as a win or loss after a game might be because of the media giving them flack. In other cases where a player is just darn successful, scoring goal after goal, and is earning that well-deserved salary, makes the fans believe they are living the boisterous lifestyle they had dreamed of. Hockey players and athletes are ordinary people too like us; they can have their good days, as well as the bad – they have to uphold the responsibility to serve their team right. This is why the conversation with mental health needs to expand when it comes to professional sports, particularly hockey. 

Vancouver’s unsung hero

As a child growing up in Vancouver, I've watched the Canucks perform at its prime. The West Coast Express, arguably known as one of the best lines in franchise history and probably one of the best in the NHL during its tenure. The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, shook Vancouver to its very core. If I asked a die hard fan to name some of the best players we currently have on the team, Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, or Brock Boeser would be some familiar names that would come to mind. What if I asked that same fan if he/she knew about Rick Rypien? 

The former fourth-liner's story on mental health issues came to light in the National Hockey League. In 2011, off-season involving fellow NHL players, Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak committed several suicide attempts. This event triggered a shift in the league.

Undrafted in the NHL, Rick Rypien made his start in his hockey career in 2004-2005 by playing with the Manitoba Moose, the farm team that was affiliated with the Canucks at the time. He juggled between the Canucks and the Moose and eventually became a regular in the Canucks roster in the 2007-2008 season. Rypien’s hard earned work in making it to the big league didn’t phase him however, as his career was clouded with bouts of clinical depression and mental illness. During the years between 2008 and 2009, Rypien went missing.  The general manager of the Manitoba Moose, Craig Heisinger, and Canucks teammate, Kevin Bieksa arrived at Rypien's house and comforted him back home to Vancouver and was then accompanied by Bieska's family for support. 

 

“He had a huge heart and he really didn’t like for people to worry about him. He didn’t want people worrying about him. He didn’t want people to have to take care of him. He wanted to be the one taking care of people. That’s the way he was. He was kind of the leader of his family, the one everyone leaned on.” 

- Kevin Bieksa on Rick Rypien

 

A fan altercation during a game in the 2010-2011 season caused Rick to be suspended six games in the NHL – he later apologized to the Canucks, calling his behaviour as “inexcusable”. From then on, it became known of Rypien’s mental health issues, but the Canucks made sure to seek treatment and support for the 5’11” centre. The last thing the team was concerned about, was to lose him as a hockey player. 

 

“When you come to know somebody and realize they're a really good person… you don't only support them when they're at the top of their game… you support them when they're not feeling good about things or have other issues they have to deal with. These are young people that have a lot to offer, a lot to live for, and you support them in any way possible.” 

- Mike Gillis on Rick Rypien

Rick’s last days 

During the 2011 off-season, Rick parted ways with the Canucks during the start of free agency. He signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Winnipeg Jets. Not only was it the start of a new beginning for the Canadian team, having relocated from Atlanta, Georgia as the Atlanta Thrashers, but also for Rypien himself – he was eager to return to Winnipeg, where he began his professional hockey career with the Manitoba Moose. In addition, he would have also changed his jersey number from 37 to 11, the same number he wore back with the Moose, as well as his junior hockey league days with the Regina Pats. He called his signing as “one of the best days of his summer”. 

The night before August 15, 2011, Rypien was scheduled for a flight to Winnipeg to have his knee evaluated. When he didn’t pick up his phone call, Craig Heisinger, who eventually became the general manager for the Winnipeg Jets, attempted to locate him. The following afternoon, Rick Rypien was found dead at his home in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. News of his passing came as a surprise to many, especially after his signing to Winnipeg a month earlier.

Rick Rypien during his time with the Manitoba Moose.

“Sad to hear about Rick Rypien. I was looking forward to playing with him in Winnipeg.” 

- Andrew Ladd, who was set to be captain for the Winnipeg Jets for the 2011-2012 NHL season 

 

“Rick has been a beloved member of the Canucks family for the past six years. Rick was a great teammate and friend to our players, coaches and staff. We send our deepest condolences to the Rypien family at this most difficult time.” 

- Statement released by the Vancouver Canucks organization 

 

During Rick’s tenure in Vancouver, he was known than just the fourth-line plug. Standing at 5’11”, less than the average height of a typical NHLer, he wasn’t afraid to fight taller, heavier guys, some of them already having a presence in the league. His opponents included Hall Gill, Daniel Carcillo, and Brandon Prust. On top of his ability to fight on the ice, Rypien possessed traits of courage, honour, humility, integrity, and passion – traits used to describe the Heart of a Canuck, a season long celebration done by the Vancouver team the following season. He truly was an example of a tough guy on the outside, but had a heart of gold on the inside.

But although it wasn’t known whether or not Rypien’s fighting and toughness contributed to his mental health, it didn’t stop him from battling his own demons too; lamentably, they took over. Rick was just like your normal human being, but “a simple guy with some issues to deal with,” quoted Craig Heisinger.

Carrying on Rick’s legacy

Rick’s story doesn’t end there. In the years since, his longtime friend, Kevin Bieksa, will keep talking about his dear friend and the cause that he has stayed true to. In January 2012, Bieksa founded Mindcheck.ca (now known as Foundrybc.ca), a BC-based website where users can recognize the symptoms of mental illness, and provide adequate resources. His project proved to be extremely successful, with “over 130,000 new visitors and 56,000 of them filling out the self-assessment quizzes,” a year after it was launched. He said that “it has received great feedback and has even done good from his fans, providing a channel to share stories relating to mental health.” Along with other NHL players such as Josh Gorges, Daniel Alfredsson, James van Riemsdyk, and Jordan Eberle, #HockeyTalks was launched by all 7 Canadian NHL teams to bring forth and educate those on mental health awareness.

“Up until five years ago, I had never heard anything about mental illness in my career. 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.” 

- Kevin Bieksa

Kevin Bieksa (in blue) and Rick Rypien (in black).
https://twitter.com/kbieksa3/status/632716775327580160

“Believe in yourself and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. You just have to believe in yourself and if you want it bad enough, you can do it.”

- Rick Rypien

Let’s talk. 

The reasons why I am a hockey fan is not just because of how action-packed or popular it is, but rather, it is because of the selfless and courageous acts that these players, such as Kevin Bieksa, bring to light, and I am proud to link the sport to a cause that I have been so passionate about, ever since I heard about it several years ago. And today, January 30, 2019, is #BellLetsTalk Day. Put aside those connotations and assumptions that you may have on important and celebrated figures, because just like us, they are human beings too. Just because someone is known to be an All-Star in the league and is widely admired by fans, young and old, doesn’t mean they have a certain advantage over others. They could all be suffering the same traumas that we go through in our day-to-day lives. Mental health is a cause that still needs to be talked about today, so that people are able to freely talk about it without feeling guilt or ashamed – it affects everyone, and anyone.

So, let’s talk. Let’s join the conversation and end the stigma on mental illness today.

There are many ways you get involved in #BellLetsTalk Day. For every text message, phone call, tweet, Facebook post or share, Twitter tweet, or Snapchat filter sent under the hashtag “#BellLetsTalk”, Bell will donate $0.05 CAD to mental initatives in Canada. In 2018, almost $7 million was donated to mental health initiatives.

If you are seeking help: 

SFU Health & Counselling available at all three campuses. To contact the front desk, please visit their website here.

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