For the second time since the regular season ended, the hockey world received the worst news it can hear: one of its players was found dead. Rick Rypien, one of the league's pound-for-pound best enforcers out there, was found dead at the age of 27 in his Alberta home.
Rypien was a player who certainly had his demons. It was widely speculated that he was having a battle with depression issues when the Canucks game Rypien a personal leave of absence in late 2010. Unfortunately, his lasting memory for many of Rypien will be the altercation he was in with a fan in Minnesota.
But this is where that part of the story ends. Just yesterday I wrote a story about the role of fighting in hockey, saying that with every passing day I drift away from seeing it as a necessity in the sport. Don't be confused, this isn't an attempt to rehash that discussion the day after Rypien's death. Some might. Is it a coincidence that the two players (the other being Derek Boogaard) who were found lying dead in their homes in the past few months had a primary job of dropping the gloves? Probably.
Instead the question I have is if the NHL is doing enough to take care of its players. In no way am I condeming the league at this point of having had any ability to prevent either tragedy. Especially without knowing the specifics behind the Rypien tragedy it's impossible to make any such condemnations.
Surely the league can't be asked to babysit every player all the time. That is unreasonable and impossible. But is there more that can be done to help players in need of treatment? Perhaps make it more accessible and explained in great detail to player? The NHL must at least look at the question, explore if more can be done with its treatment program. However that's a discussion for a later day.
In the meantime, this is still the grieving process, the point where people remember the man. And Rypien isn't being remembered by those in the game for moments like that outburst on a Wild fan. No, he is being remembered for his prominent skills as a fighter. He was about as tough as anybody in hockey, willing to do what he needed for his team and teammates. That's the player that was Rick Rypien.
Here is the statement NHLPA head Donald Fehr released today.
“All Players and NHLPA staff are saddened to learn of Rick’s passing. He was a respected member of our Association and will be greatly missed throughout the hockey community. Our sincere condolences go out to Rick’s family, friends and many fans.”
The comments came flying in across the Twitterverse as well.
Mike Commodore: "RIP Rick Rypien. He was a warrior. Hit me so hard my eyes couldn't focus for 30 secs. Not sure if it was a left or right. #hitmewithboth"
Paul Bissonnette: "Just heard the terrible news about Rick Rypien. One of the toughest pound for pound guys in the league. He had no fear. Sad day."
Michael Grabner: "I will always have the memories from Vancouver with Rick..also pound for pound was one of the toughest guys out there.. #RIP"
There were plenty more. Hockey players were flying out of the woodworks to give their lasting memories of Rypien. Most all of them recognized the guy they knew on the ice, the tough combatant that very few wanted to square off against. But then there were the guys who knew him better. For guys like George Parros, Rypien's fighting ability was secondary.
"Damn... Rick Rypien will be missed. He was the nicest guy, hung with him a few times in VAN...tough as all hell too. Thoughts to his fam"
See, here is the funny thing about enforcers. They are seen as the biggest tough guys in the game, the ultimate alpha males. And in a lot of cases, it's a situation where it couldn't be further from the truth. Sure, on the ice they fit that bill, but off? Not necessarily the case.
In reality, they are the greatest teammates anybody could have. They prove time and time again that they are willing to do whatever it takes, whatever the team needs. For a lot of them, it's their only way to stay in the league, to continue to play the game they love.
Derek Boogaard, the other player who tragically died since the end of last season, was recognized as one of the nicest guys in the league while having the heaviest fists around. The lasting memories of him were just as much about his charity work as it was his breaking of Todd Fedoruk's jaw.
How about Georges Laraque's visit to Haiti with P.K. Subban earlier this offseason? The two spent time visiting children's hospitals and doing their best to make an impact in the war- and earthquake-ravaged nation.
That's the paradox that is the image of enforcers. While people outside the game, watching it from the sidelines and the press box, will remember Rypien for his fights and his black eye of an incident in Minnesota. But his co-workers, his colleagues remember him the way most enforcers are: a great teammate.
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