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Rick Rypien; NHL forward battled depression

Rick Rypien fought with Edmonton’s Zach Stortini in 2009. Rick Rypien fought with Edmonton’s Zach Stortini in 2009. (Jimmy Jeong/Canadian Press)
By Jeff Z. Klein
New York Times / August 18, 2011

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NEW YORK - Rick Rypien, the scrappy 27-year-old Winnipeg Jets forward who was found dead Monday, was considered perhaps the best pound-for-pound fighter in the NHL. But for more than a decade, he battled depression, a disorder that caused him to take two leaves of absence from the Vancouver Canucks.

When Mr. Rypien did not show up Monday for a scheduled physical with his new team, the Jets, team officials grew concerned, said Craig Heisinger, the Jets’ assistant general manager. A family member later found Mr. Rypien’s body at his house in Coleman, Alberta, his hometown. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Mr. Rypien’s death was “sudden’’ but “not suspicious.’’

“He was just a simple guy with some issues to deal with,’’ Heisinger said Tuesday at a press conference.

Mr. Rypien was a fourth-line forward of slightly below average size who was noted for his combativeness. He fought often - 39 times in his 119-game NHL career - while scoring only nine goals and seven assists.

But he was not known as an enforcer in the same sense as Derek Boogaard, the Rangers forward found dead of an accidental overdose of oxycodone and alcohol in his Twin Cities apartment in May, and other heavyweights whose main function is to fight.

Rather, at 5 feet 11 inches and 190 pounds, Mr. Rypien fell into the category of the useful, smaller, character player, willing to take on anyone. In each of Mr. Rypien’s 39 NHL fights, his opponent was taller, according to Dropyourgloves.com, a website that tracks hockey fights. In 2009, he fought Hal Gill, a 6-foot-7 Montreal defenseman.

Jason Jaffray, a road roommate of Mr. Rypien’s with Vancouver and the Canucks’ Manitoba Moose farm club, said: “He was a guy who wouldn’t back down from anyone. He was a guy that was definitely fearless.’’

Mr. Rypien most likely acquired his fearlessness from his father, Wes, a former boxer.

Though undrafted, Mr. Rypien was signed by Vancouver in 2005 after a junior career in which he was captain of the Regina Pats in Saskatchewan. While he was with the Pats, his girl- friend was killed in a car crash.

Peter Engelhardt, whose family Mr. Rypien lived with at the time, said that Mr. Rypien “changed a little bit, right then and there’’ but added that “everybody’s going to, when you have something like this happen.’’

The Canucks did not re-sign him. He then signed with the Jets, who were the Atlanta Thrashers until they were sold this summer.

Mr. Rypien was injured often in his NHL career, but none of the reported injuries included a concussion, which doctors say can trigger depression.

“When players get injured and have to sit out for long stretches, it can wear on them mentally,’’ Allain Roy, Mr. Rypien’s agent for more than 10 years, said Tuesday. “But Rick was excited about coming to Winnipeg.’’

Mr. Rypien was granted two leaves of absence by the Canucks in the last three seasons to deal with what were then referred to as personal problems. When he returned from his second leave in March, Mr. Rypien said he had dealt with “a personal matter, a rare issue.’’ He added, “I missed a lot of hockey, but certain things needed to be dealt with.’’