We don't yet fully understand the circumstances surrounding the death of NHL tough guy Rick Rypien, who was found dead at his Alberta home on Monday. Speculation has run rampant surrounding the grim news, and really, it's not hard to understand why we're all jumping to conclusions on things.
Rypien has had personal troubles in the past, and last year was a particularly bad one for the then-Canucks forward. He was suspended six games following an October incident with a fan in Minnesota, and he afterwards, he took a long leave of absence from the game in the middle of the season. Ultimately, he only played nine NHL games for the Canucks in 2010-11, while spending 11 regular season games and seven playoff games in Winnipeg with the AHL's Manitoba Moose.
He spoke to reporters in early March, just before he stepped back on the ice with the Moose towards the end of their season, about taking a step back for a game and what he was going through. It's an interview that's now extremely emotional to watch (via @bruce_arthur):
I'm very excited. I think over the last few years here especially, just a lot of hockey. Obviously, you wanna do that but certain things had to be dealt with. I definitely have a totally different mindset now and I'm very excited.
At this stage, even over the past few years here playing with Vancouver, I think I was playing but I don't think within myself. I don't think I was every really playing to my full potential that I know I can play. I've always wanted to show a side that I haven't been able to do yet. I think that's my focus and I've got a clear mind: you know, healthy, happy with myself than I've ever been. I think if I -- I think it's gonna be how I behave and how I act over time, but I think it's just taking it one day at a time.
I'm more excited for hockey than I've ever been in my life.
One thing I do absolutely, 100 percent want to clarify is that there's no substance abuse at all. That's the farthest thing this is from. It's a personal matter, it's kind of a rare issue, and even though it's taken me away from hockey and the game I love and what I am, doing the things and the work I've done in the last couple months, I've made a lot of gains as a person and an individual.
That's only a piece of what Rypien had to say. He spoke about wanting to help other hockey players, and how when faced with situations like the one he was in, it's "okay to ask for help" and that people want to help. Perhaps more heartbreaking than anything else now that we know his ultimate end, Rypien said several times, with passion in his voice, that he can't wait to resume his playing career.
Rypien was back in Winnipeg this summer as a free agent after signing a deal with the Winnipeg Jets to play this upcoming season. He was genuinely excited to resume his NHL career, one in which he's established himself as one of the elite fighters in the game and, at least among loyal fans, as a favorite son.
There's horribly depressing irony in the fact that SB Nation's Ottawa Senators blog, Silver Seven, posted a story on Monday afternoon prior to the news of Rypien's death on "the human toll of fighting" in the NHL. In the story, John Scott of the Chicago Blackhawks is quoted as saying:
"I don't think people understand the nerves and the kind of mindset that fighters go through. I've stayed up nights not sleeping a wink because I know I'm going to fight someone the next day. It's one of those situations where it's not natural to go out and fight every day or to have that constant threat of a fight, even though it might not come. ... Some guys might not be able to sleep, and they take some stuff to help them sleep."
In many cases, such as the death of Derek Boogaard earlier this offseason, this sort of pressure drives players to substance abuse, and as Silver Seven points out from what we know about the league's substance abuse and mental health program, an inordinate number of players that have checked in to that program have been enforcers.
Rypien was adamant in that March interview that substance abuse was not his problem, and we can't know for sure, at least at this stage, whether or not his fighting caused mental problems that forced him away from the game. We certainly can't connect those issues with his death at this stage, either.
But it's all the chilling truth that tough guys in the NHL are perhaps some of the most misunderstood people in the sport of hockey, and given Rypien's personal issues, it's safe to lump him in that category. It's also safe to believe that his job had something to do with those issues, to an extent unknown.
The ultimate reason for the death of Rick Rypien won't be explained for days or even potentially weeks, but regardless of the explanation, a man who had to overcome some serious personal demons is gone. He attempted to reach out for help and was apparently on the road to recovery, with a new gig in a town that he seemed to hold deep affection for -- the town where he started his pro career in 2004.
As he said in March, "I'm more excited for hockey than I've ever been in my life."
Now, that's a life that's been tragically cut short.