The wound is still fresh for those who are hurting over the loss of another enforcer in the NHL. A little more than 24 hours ago Rick Rypien was found dead in his home by a family member. Details of the breaking news have yet to surface and many (me included!) are left with a lot of questions. Was this an accident? Was this intentional? Did Rypien, a guy recently signed to the brand spanking new Jets 2.0 with a bright future ahead of him, commit suicide? Did something drive him to kill himself when he had everything to gain in the National Hockey League?
This sudden death falls just short of three months after the NHL world lost another glove-dropper. In the case of Derek Boogard, affectionately referred to as the Boogey Man, the facts say it was a combination of painkillers and alcohol that took such a promising young player from the world prematurely. I have discussed Boogard’s death many times with another hockey enthusiast and we come back to the same conclusion: How could someone who was probably a pro at taking painkillers make such a stupid mistake? Was it an accident or was there more going on in his and Rypien’s heads?
Here are some factors to consider in trying to understand how Rypien and possibly Boogard could lose their lives at the prime of their careers.
Rypien missed most of the 2010-2011 season for depression. After Rypien grabbed a fan while walking down the tube at a game against the Minnesota Wild, he took a personal leave. The final tally of games he played in last season was 9 NHL and 11 AHL. Right after his leave of absence started, an article in the Vancouver Sun said:
Rypien was a healthy scratch the last three games and has been largely ineffective this season. He’s not a player the team needs right now. But he’s a person they badly want to keep in their organization.
I don’t know about most people, but if I was in the Ripper’s shoes, I would take such statements to heart. However, he took the much needed break and when Rypien was ready to return, he did a video interview for the Manitoba Moose and was quoted as saying:
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.
Rypien was on the right track, so what happened?
Some research has been done on the physical effects of multiple sports concussions and a correlation between them and depression. McGill University in Montreal has done studies and have some alarming findings…
Depression is one of a number of persisting symptoms experienced by athletes following sports concussion. The prevalence of depression in the general population is around 5%, whilst the prevalence of depression in head trauma patients can reach an astounding 40 %.
Later in the article they state:
(there is) a link between a history of brain injury and probability of developing major depression later in life. Therefore understanding the pathology of depression in concussed subjects has important implications for early intervention and successful outcomes.
Now, some may say “why is this relevant for someone like Rypien?” There are a few definitions for “concussion” when talking puck. When I think of the word “concussion” when talking about hockey, I replay Sidney Crosby taking a shoulder to the head courtesy of Dave Steckel in the Winter Classic. I see Marc Savard’s season (and potential career) ending elbow to the noggin by Matt Cooke. Or, the latest atrocity on the ice, Max Pacioretty taking a Chara glove to the face and a resulting violent “howdy” with a glass stanchion. These are the general hazards we have witnessed and cringed at in this sport we love. In recent times we have seen an effort on the business side of the league trying to advocate the well-being of the players and sending them to a quiet room to be evaluated by a medical professional not associated with the teams. There have been suspensions for intentional and unintentional hits to the head for the sake of frowning upon such violent actions however…
What about the violent actions we condone?
The “enforcers” of each team are well known as rabble-rousers who irritate their opponents in an effort to, literally and figuratively, knock them off their games. Such famous names on the ice now are John Scott, Cam Janssen, George Parros, Paul Bissonnette, Zenon Konopka… the list goes on. We see the external effects, the bloody brows, broken noses, black eyes, cuts hands… these guys look like they go through a meat grinder.
What some may forget is that with each punch, the head jerks back, the brain sloshes around, and if hit hard enough, hits the wall of the skull. This is the technical definition of a concussion. Now multiply that times 10-20 a season… you get the idea. For those with quick feet and crafty hands, the occasional fight is seen as normal, but for players like Rypien, fights were necessary.
Rypien cemented his fourth line position with his ability to provoke the opposition. In 2009-2010, Rypien had 16 fights in 69 games, finishing 16th in the league in fights for that year. The more fights, the more games he played in the NHL. This guy was bread for success but unfortunately his success would be at the hands of others, more specifically, the fists. He was well aware of and embraced the fact that his only way to shine was to take a beating for a living.
Long story short, being a fighter takes a mental toll on a player. John Scott put it best:
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…
These guys go out there knowing they could get into a fight that night and with 82 games in the regular season, there are many opportunities to square off. Knowing this takes a toll on the mind and, as Scott said, sleep is lost over these worries and often drugs are used to treat the mental anguish that accompanies being an enforcer. It is easy to see why Rypien and the others toe the line of sanity and insanity on a daily basis. It is truly unfortunate to see another player succumb to the pressure of professional hockey.
For a great article on Rypien: here