Big brother watching mental health legacy
Wes Rypien embraces Hockey Talks initiative in hopes of sparing others the grief of losing a loved one
Rick Rypien's family told him they were proud of him and that he was a good influence on kids.
Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, Getty Images, Vancouver Sun
On the day his little brother died, Wes Rypien was working up north, far from the Southern Alberta Rockies where he and Rick were inseparable most of their lives.
Wes received an alarming message from his cousin, Mark Rypien, and called his mom Shelley to find out what was going on. She told her son that his brother had killed himself. Rick Rypien, just 27 years old, was gone. They'd lost him.
"Everything kind of stopped," Wes recalls. "I didn't know what to do. Stuff goes through your head. You wonder if it's actually real. You're kind of in disbelief and denial.
"What bothered me the most is you always wonder if you did enough. It never crossed my mind that he did something to me. But you feel terrible, like: Did you do enough? What could you have done differently? That's the hardest part for me."
Those questions will probably always haunt Wes. But he is doing something now, and so are the Vancouver Canucks and the six other Canadian teams in the National Hockey League.
Seventeen months after Rick Rypien, beloved by family and teammates, took his own life to escape a decade-long battle against depression, Canada's NHL teams will announce Thursday morning a February initiative called "Hockey Talks." The program aims to raise awareness about mental health and elevate the fight against the silence that so often surrounds depression and other illnesses.
The Canucks, with whom Rick spent his troubled, six-year career, are driving the program and will officially open it with a presentation at their home game Friday against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"Rick confided in me his desire to talk to young people and let them know it was OK to ask for help," Canuck vice-president T.C. Carling says. "It was imperative for me to fulfil that wish for Rick. It's OK to talk about mental health, and it's OK to ask for help. We've started the conversation and want to continue the conversation."
Funded by a $50,000 donation by the Canucks, local health authorities relaunched the website mindcheck.ca one year ago. Since then, 54,000 visitors to the site have conducted a self-assessment of their mental health, and many of those people will have sought treatment for issues that include clinical depression.
Wes Rypien, who works in the mining industry, was planning his annual hockey school last summer in Crowsnest Pass, Alta., when he was approached by a woman who knows his family.
"She said there was a friend of hers whose son knew about Rick and went on the website and realized he was suffering from a lot of the same symptoms," Wes says. "He brought this to the attention of his parents. He was 14. She just wanted to tell me because the website is actually working."
This is Rick Rypien's legacy. Rick told teammate Kevin Bieksa about his mental health issues before training camp in 2008, and the Canucks helped coordinate and support treatment that included counselling and medication.
Back in Crowsnest Pass, Wes decided to move back in with Rick so he could be near when his brother was home.
They were born 18 months apart. They did almost everything together, and Rick followed Wes in hockey - from minor to junior and then the professional minor leagues before Rick surpassed Wes and played in the NHL.
"We've always lived together," Wes says. "Even though my parents were divorced, we were together since he was born. The only time we weren't together was when I went away to play hockey and then when he did. But when we were older, we were living together again.
"I got home from work one day and there was a phone call. The Canucks were on the road somewhere, and I got a message that I had to go pick Rick up at the airport. He kind of opened up about it. It was a bit of a shock (but) I knew something was up because one year he was having an issue about going back to Vancouver for the season. I couldn't figure it out because it was almost like someone flipped a switch from the person he was before."
Wes said he tried many times to talk to Rick about his issues, to tell him how great he was and how proud he and his family were of him, to let him know he was a positive influence on kids.
"Not just myself, but my parents would go over and over it with him," Wes says. "You'd think it would help, but it didn't. He'd pull back and even I wouldn't be able to talk to him.
"The Canucks and my family, a lot of people, did a lot of different things to help him. I think it's hard for anyone, who isn't suffering those symptoms, to know what the person is going through."
Despite Rick's illness and his change to someone people closest to him hardly recognized, Wes says he never considered that his brother might commit suicide.
"I made a comment that he was a ticking time bomb," Wes says. "But my worry was that he was going to hurt somebody else, not himself. Someone was going to say the wrong thing to him, like the fan in Minnesota."
On Oct. 19, 2010, Rypien briefly grabbed a fan on his way to the dressing room after a fight on the ice in Minnesota. The NHL suspended Rypien six games. He returned and played six more games, then left the Canucks again. Rypien never returned to the NHL, spending the last few weeks of that season in the minors.
On July 2, 2011, he signed a one-way contract to play for the Winnipeg Jets and Craig Heis-inger, the former Manitoba Moose general manager who gave Rypien his start in professional hockey and became like a second father figure to him. Rypien ended his life on Aug. 15.
Devastated, Wes sought counselling.
Last summer, he got married and in November he and his bride, Lindsay, had a baby boy named Luke. Wes thinks Rick would have made a terrific uncle.
Only recently has it become easier for Wes to talk about his brother. He is travelling to Vancouver for Friday's game and to support Hockey Talks.
Carling hopes the initiative will spread and eventually all 30 NHL teams will help shine a spotlight on mental health.
"It's still pretty hard on my parents," Wes says.
"Now that I have my own kid, I can't imagine how my parents felt losing one of theirs. For me, there has been no better feeling than seeing my son born. That has really helped me a lot.
"But I don't know if it helps with the grief because, for me, the grief is just there. I don't think that ever goes away."
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