One of the most shocking aspects surrounding the sudden death of NHL player Rick Rypien is so many people expressing shock that such a thing could happen.
Rypien, a pugilistic forward who recently signed a contract with the Winnipeg Jets, was found dead at his summer home in the Crowsnest Pass on Monday.
Police say his death was sudden but not suspicious — code for suicide.
Rypien had so much to live for. He was young, strong and widely admired.
As an NHLer, he was rich beyond the imaginings of average Canadians. He was highly respected by managers of the franchises he played for and his teammates.
Mike Keane, who teamed with Rypien and played more than 1,000 games on six NHL clubs, called him the best teammate ever.
People ask why somebody so young — 27 — so strong, so beloved could die so tragically. Many wouldn’t think or say the same thing if Rypien had died suddenly of a heart attack or a stroke.
But the young man was gravely ill and had been so for considerable time.
He battled mental illness and was off work receiving treatment for depression twice in the last hockey season, while on the roster of the Vancouver Canucks.
Team management was sympathetic to Rypien’s illness and did what they felt appropriate to assist him.
Professional sports teams are always reluctant to disclose the specifics of injuries to players, fearing that when they return to the game, opponents will try to exploit body parts that are not fully healed.
With mental illness, there’s still an additional stigma of weakness that keeps afflictions like depression in the background.
Elite athletes must constantly overcome physical, mental and emotional challenges to reach the pinnacle in their sport. They are taught from an early age to overlook pain and continue competing.
Anything less is considered weak or unmanly.
That’s doubly so for players like Rypien.
He had hockey skills beyond 99 per cent of everybody who ever played the game. But being in the top one per cent won’t get you into the National Hockey league for a game, let alone a career.
Rypien carved out a place for himself not only because of his skating, shooting and checking skills, but also because he was willing to fight other teams’ toughest players.
Rypien was not a big man by NHL standards — shorter than six feet and weighing less than 200 pounds. But he was always willing to take on bigger and stronger men to — in hockey parlance — protect his teammates.
It’s a tough job but one still considered essential by most NHL teams.
The theory is that you need one “tough guy” to stop opposing teams from taking liberties with your smaller, more talented players.
For those few individuals, careers are on the knife edge even more than for their teammates.
NHL teams routinely dress 12 forwards, six defencemen and two goalies for games.
If you are the sole designated puncher, but unwilling to take on men bigger and stronger than you at the drop of a glove; if you don’t win enough of those fights; if you get seriously injured in a hockey tilt, you are soon out of a job.
Concussions are one of the most serious and rapidly rising injuries for hockey players.
In hockey fights, it’s part of the code that you first remove your helmet. Hands are unpadded. Every punch is directed at the opponent’s head.
To nobody’s surprise, tough guys are frequent victims of concussions.
A growing body of medical evidence now shows a link between concussions and depression.
The evidence is not deep enough to link a fight or series of fights to one concussion and on to depression and suicide.
That level of certainty may never be established.
But the body of anecdotal evidence is past the point where it can be ignored.
Rypien’s death presents an unwelcome challenge for the NHL.
He is the second NHL tough guy to die suddenly this summer.
Derek Boogaard, the New York Rangers’ designated fighter, died this spring after overdosing on alcohol and drugs.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said this week that the league will closely review its substance abuse and behavioural health program, in which both Rypien and Boogaard had been enrolled.
At the same time, the league should review its longstanding practice of allowing and encouraging staged fights by designated brawlers.
The best NHL team of the past generation has decided it doesn’t need one. The Detroit Red Wings don’t have a spot on their roster for a player who can only contribute with his fists. Their players are tough and won’t back down when challenged. They intimidate opponents with speed and skill.
The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cup championships and lost once in the finals in the past 14 years.
Rick Rypien would likely never have found a roster spot with the Red Wings.
He might still be alive today, however, if professional hockey had followed Detroit’s lead years ago.
Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.