This article appeared in the June 17, 2011 edition of the Lethbridge Herald. Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien was found dead in his home in Coleman Monday. Police have said the death is not suspicious. Rypien played hockey in Lethbridge before moving on to captain the Regina Pats in the WHL. Despite not being drafted into the NHL, he eventually became a full-time player with the Vancouver Canucks.
The Rick Rypien who stood in the hallway, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, seemed nothing like the NHL hockey player pummelling opponents on the big screen in the St. Francis Junior High School gym.
The 27-year-old who nervously asked is his aunt "Do I have to talk?" seemed far away from the scowling predator in the Vancouver Canucks jersey who shoved a fan in Minnesota on Oct. 19 last year, an act which garnered Rypien a seven-game suspension.
That contrast is the key to the past 12 months for Rypien.
He took an unorthodox route to being a professional hockey player, after being shunned by both the WHL and NHL drafts, the former Regina Pats captain took advantage of a tryout with the AHL's Manitoba Moose and climbed the ladder from there. His professional career proved to be unorthodox, too.
But not always in a good way. Rypien struggled with injuries and a slight change in role. While he was never going to win a scoring race in junior, he was a gritty, skilled forward in the WHL, managing 19 and 22 goals in 2003-05, his final two seasons in the league.
Almost immediately as a pro, he began the yo-yo lifestyle of a tough guy NHL fighter. He was called up and sent down for almost two seasons, but eventually established himself as a gritty, fighting forward and spent 69 games in the NHL in 2009-10. A long way from doing plyometrics in Aunt Kelly Rypien's driveway.
But the life of a fighter in the NHL isn't all fun and games and the five-foot-11 Rypien took a break for much of the 2010-11 season. The incident in Minnesota, where Rypien shoved a fan, seemed to be a catalyst.
The personal leave was not for substance abuse, and when Rypien returned, he was granted some additional time for a conditioning stint back in Winnipeg with the Moose, but a torn meniscus in his knee meant no action during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And that's how Rick Rypien found himself standing outside the St. Francis gym while 600 students cheered as his video image scrapped through a handful of Youtube highlights. The Crowsnest Pass native was at St. Francis to hand out athletic awards, sign autographs and return home to the Pass by 11 a.m.
Two out of three ain't bad, as Rypien was late leaving the school thanks to the throng of students asking for photos and autgraphs. Even Grandma was stuck waiting out in the hallway.
But still, that vicious competitor looked nothing like the young man who couldn't say no to anyone - even the paramedics - who wanted a photo or an autograph .
"That's the way he is, that's the way he's always been," said Kelly, who teaches at St. Francis and billeted a younger Rick during his bantam and midget days in Lethbridge. He paid his way by babysitting. And changing the diaper of at least one of the students picking up an athletic award.
"He's not that guy, the one that beats people up on the ice," added Kelly. "That's just his job."
And, when he did speak to the students at St. Francis, Rypien told them not to give up, no matter what. It's a lesson the overlooked Rypien knows well.
But there was another lesson in what Rypien said, one that probably went overlooked by the gymnasium full of parents, teachers and students. Rypien told them they shouldn't be afraid to ask for help.
He wrote it down on a small notebook, like one a reporter would use to write down quotes from an NHLer.
Sitting in his aunt's classroom, hunched over her desk while his cousins Taylor and Matt waited with Austin Weersink.
"Do not be afraid to ask for help," was the simple message.
"I think that's the one that's probably more important," said Kelly.
"I mean, it probably takes more courage to ask for help than it does to play hockey and do what he does."
And Rypien said it was an honour to be part of things at the school. His chance to pass on a few words of encouragement.
"I think after the last year, what I've been through this is pretty easy to handle," he said.
"If you can reach out, maybe put a smile on someone's face or help them or encourage them along the way and maybe change their life. That's the best part of the job."
Rypien said his journey over the past year was a necessary part of getting better. At 27, he said his career is just beginning.
"It's a year where I didn't plan on certain things going the way they did but it's been a great learning experience for me as a person and one of the best things I've been through."
The glib analysis for Rypien's personal leave of absence is mental health issues, but talking to him, it sounds more like stress. The same stress his cousin, Taylor, is dealing with at exam time.
"I've always enjoyed playing hockey. Along the way, there can be a lot of distractions, a lot of pressure not only as a hockey player but in the position I play," said Rypien. "You're fighting guys every night, usually they're a lot bigger than you and that can put a lot of pressure on you.
"Now I can manage those things and I think it's a lot more positive for me."
Rypien said his teammates' run through the Stanley Cup playoffs was thrilling despite the ending, and he was able to be there for parts of it. He even got behind the bench for a game.
Not bad for a kid who played for the Crowsnest Pass Timberwolves and was cut twice during AAA tryouts in Lethbridge. But if looking back on his journey so far causes Rypien any regrets, he isn't saying it.
"Be happy, have fun, you;ve got to have fun," he said. "If you enjoy what you do, it's not work, and that's the way I look at it now."
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