OPINION — Remembering Rick Rypien


If there were a picture next to the word “tough” in the dictionary, it would be of Rick Rypien.

Rypien was a prolific fighter in the NHL and AHL— one of the toughest customers in either league. He was also a man who lived and struggled with depression. He had just signed with — but never played for — the Winnipeg Jets when he died in 2011.

I loved watching Rypien play. Watching him fight through his depression was inspiring. He wasn’t even six feet tall, but he stood toe-to-toe with 6’7” monsters like Hal Gill and Boris Valabik, and when he fought, he won.

My admiration went beyond the punching. He was active in the community. He was a good hockey player with his gloves on. He was one of the best members of what was once the only professional hockey ticket in Winnipeg: the Manitoba Moose. He did all that struggling with a pain that left him fighting just to make it out of bed in the morning some days.

Travis Taylor, a 23-year-old Winnipeg native who has played hockey for 17 years and has his own struggles with mental illness, knows what that feels like.

“With the chemical imbalances that happen in your brain, it really alters you in ways that a lot of people can’t see,” Taylor said. “It’s like that thing where you put a frog straight into boiling water, he’ll jump out. But if you put him in lukewarm water and slowly turn the temperature up, he won’t notice and he’ll die.”

Still, Taylor was excited when the Jets signed Rypien in the summer of 2011. But the storybook homecoming came to a screeching halt that August, when Rypien committed suicide.

Rypien was tough. Physically, yes, but also mentally, and as Taylor proves, his legacy helps others open up about mental illness.

“I’ve been comfortable talking about it for about two years now,” Taylor said, “but I’ve been struggling with this kind of stuff since I was 15 or 16, and my whole family has had similar issues. It wasn’t until I asked for help that it kind of got the ball rolling for everybody else.”

Cody Waldron has been playing hockey since almost before he could walk. He lives with anxiety and depression. He said Rypien’s story motivated him to speak out.

“Knowing that this could happen to me if I don’t talk about it really pushes me to (speak out),” he said. “It’s definitely easier to talk about than it was five years ago. We’ve become more aware of it, and he was one of the focal points that put us over the top to talk about it.”

“People you watch on TV, athletes, people you look up to, they’re expressing their thoughts and issues to the media. I think it starts with role models. It starts with them saying it is okay to talk about these types of things.”

Number 11 

Rypien never played as number 11 for Winnipeg. It was retired upon his death, and no Jet will ever wear it again.

I’ve played for a smattering of teams at a variety of (mostly terrible) levels since 2011. I have worn number 11 for every one of them. If I have my way, I will wear no other number again.

I wear it because I remember a good player and a man gone too soon. I remember the scrappy youngster I saw for the first time when I was too young to know what depression was. I wear it for a young man who scored in his first NHL game, battled a terrible illness until the bitter end and died as a member of the Winnipeg Jets.

I wear it for a brave soul whose struggle mirrored the silent struggle of so many others and whose death sparked a conversation that helps those people to this day.

I wear it for Ryp.