Rick Rypien's story far from over as Hockey Talks is launched
Canucks, six other NHL teams, launching mental-health awareness campaign
It's hard to think of this as a beautiful story or a story with a happy ending.
Rick Rypien battled mental illness throughout his adult life.
This resulted in a level of suffering that is difficult to comprehend.
There were times when he seemed to have the disease under control. There were times when the monster released him from its grasp.
But, in the end, the disease took his life and all the promise that existed in the young man.
"We thought he'd gotten better because he went out and sought help," said Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault, who was there for the last six years of Rypien's life.
'YOU JUST NEVER KNOW'
"But you never know. When it comes to this thing, you just never know."
Vigneault is asked if his relationship with Rypien changed the way he looks at the world.
"It's unreal," he said. But this is real. If Rypien's story ended with his death, you could question the meaning of his life.
But this story isn't over. Not by a long shot.
Today, the Vancouver Canucks and the six other Canadian-based teams launch Hockey Talks, a month-long initiative which is designed to raise awareness about mental illness.
There will be video and online messaging. There will be PSAs and the Canucks players will wear decals on their helmets.
This will take place over the month of February and, individually, it might not sound like much. But, collectively, it sends the message that it's OK to talk about mental illness, its OK to ask questions and, most important, it's OK to get help.
During their six years together, Vigneault wasn't sure about a lot of things with Rypien but he was sure of this.
'WANTED TO HELP PEOPLE'
"He really wanted to get better and he really wanted to help people," Vigneault said before Wednesday night's meeting with the Colorado Avalanche. "He felt if he could help anyone else who was in the same situation, he wanted to do that."
Now, almost a year and a half after his death, that's what will happen.
Rypien can't tell his story, but, in the Canucks' locker-room and boardroom, there are people who will tell it for him.
Therein lies its beauty. Maybe that sounds trite, but when you start talking to the members of the organization who were closest to him, you are struck by the affection, the love for Rypien.
Then you begin to understand the impact he had on this team.
Kevin Bieksa was his teammate in Manitoba and Vancouver. He invited Rypien to live with him and his wife Katie about the time their son Cole was born. When Bieksa speaks of Rypien, he says: "He was a part of our family for a couple of years there."
LIVING ALONE IN ALBERTA
During Rypien's leave of absence from the Canucks, the organization learned he'd been living by himself in his hometown of Coleman, Alta.
That set off alarm bells. After a Canucks game in Edmonton, Bieksa flew to Calgary where he met up with Moose general manager Craig Heisinger and, together, they drove through a snowstorm to talk to Rypien, to haul him out of the dark place in which he'd fallen.
Bieksa did this, not because Rypien was a victim. He did this because he was a friend.
"There were times he was doing really well, and that's when he wanted to help out other people who have this disease," said Bieksa. "We're just trying to carry on his legacy."
When Rypien grabbed a fan in Minnesota in October of 2010, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis and assistant general manager Laurence Gilman accompanied him to New York for the hearing with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
BETTMAN SPOKE TO RYPIEN
Rypien, who'd stopped taking his medication before the incident, would be suspended for six games, but before he passed sentence, Bettman talked to the young player about his life, about his choices, about the importance of staying on his meds.
It was, by all accounts, an extraordinary exchange.
"[Bettman] almost talked to him like a son," said Vigneault.
Now, the hope is the Hockey Talks initiative will be adopted by all 30 NHL teams next season. That's a lot of reach. That's a lot of people who will hear about mental illness, who will hear that it can be treated, who will hear it's OK to get help.
And it all comes back to Rypien and his story. It's quite a story, a story of a kid from Coleman who played the game with passion, who was utterly fearless, who reached hockey's highest level despite fighting a debilitating disease.
It's a story worth telling.
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