BLAIRMORE, Alta. – NHL enforcer Rick Rypien never walked away from a fight and battled bravely to the end of a too-short life, his friends and family said at his funeral Saturday.
A funeral for Rypien, 27, was held Saturday at the arena where he played minor hockey just days after his sudden death in his southern Alberta home.
Close to 1,000 friends, family, fans and former teammates turned out on a sunny day at Albert Stella Arena in the Crowsnest Pass to say goodbye.
An autographed blue No. 37 jersey from Rypien’s time with the Vancouver Canucks and a poster from his days with the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats were part of only a few mementoes scattered among the bunches of flowers.
Rypien’s former Vancouver teammate Kevin Bieksa was one of the pallbearers. His cousin, former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, also attended the service.
The program, with a smiling photo of Rypien in a blue Vancouver jersey, said simply, “Until we all meet again.”
He was found dead in his home in nearby Coleman, Alta. Police say his death was not suspicious.
Rypien, who struggled with depression, had signed with the Winnipeg Jets this off-season after six years with the Canucks.
His death came as a surprise to many who knew him and thought he had turned a corner. They said he was looking forward to playing for the newly relocated Jets.
“We were all hopeful,” said Canucks general manager Mike Gillis.” We had thought at different times that he had turned a corner and we were making progress but then it would just happen again.”
“We had the ability to intervene. We had the opportunity over the past three years to try our hardest to do the best thing. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this,” he told reporters after the service.
Jets assistant general manager Crag Heisinger knew Rypien from his minor league days with the Manitoba Moose. He was the one who signed the player to a one-year contract with the Jets for the upcoming season.
“The system didn’t fail Rick,” Heisinger said. “Everybody did as much as they possibly could for him. He did as much as he possibly could for himself.
“It’s just nothing could be done at the end. At the end of the day if Rick’s happier where he is today we should all be happy for him,” he said. “Everybody faces challenges. He’s no different than anybody else. He fought them like everybody else. It’s just in the end the demon depression won out.”
Rypien’s family remembered him as someone who was gifted athletically but who put friends and family ahead of even his love for hockey.
“My overwhelming question is, Why? How could this happen?” said his uncle Allan Rypien Jr.
“He had a great family, great friends and a great job.”
Rypien said his nephew was battling a disease not unlike cancer.
“He fought this disease with everything he had in him,” he said. “If you knew Rick he fought with everything he had in him. Unfortunately, the disease won the battle.”
“Be thankful the battle he faced is over.”
Several hockey players, wearing Crowsnest Pass Thunder hockey jerseys, were among those who attended, as well as Vancouver teammates Alex Burrows, Aaron Rome and Mason Raymond.
Rypien grew up in the scenic Crowsnest Pass, a coal mining area, and played much of his early hockey there.
He was the second NHL tough guy to die in the off-season. Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard died in May due to an accidental mix of alcohol and the pain killer oxycodone.
Many residents of the tight-knit community were angry at the media coverage of the event.
A family friend demanded that reporters take their cameras and leave, saying people should “respect the man and not the NHL player”.
Heisinger said he was there to say goodbye to the man.
“At the end of the day he’s a fantastic person. I’ll leave the player part out of it. The player part is one thing … the person part is the other and it all starts with the people,” he said.
“Rick was a fantastic guy. It’s unfortunate the ending it came too.”