VANCOUVER - Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien has apologized for confronting a fan during a game in Minnesota last week, calling the incident a ''real eye-opener."
"I know what I did was wrong," said Rypien, who is serving a six-game suspension for the Oct. 19 incident in a game against the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul.
Vowing that a similar incident would never happen again, Rypien said Monday he was not in a position to debate the length of the suspension, suggesting he had no choice but to accept it.
An irate Rypien grabbed heckling Minnesota fan James Engquist while heading to the dressing room following a confrontation with Wild enforcer Rob Staubitz near the Vancouver bench. The two had fought earlier in the game. In addition to suspending Rypien, a 26-year-old Coleman, Alta., native who is in his sixth pro season, the NHL fined the Canucks US$25,000.
"It’s a real eye-opener for me, so I think I’m going to come back real strong and better than ever," Rypien said in his first public comments since the incident occurred. "I think I’m going to be more focused and more determined to play the game that I love the most."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has reportedly offered to take Engquist to dinner and provide him with a pair of tickets for another Wild game. The move came after the fan told a Minnesota newspaper he was contemplating legal action against Rypien for the incident, which lasted a few seconds before Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault and teammate Manny Malhotra quickly intervened.
"It’s not my character to do stuff like that," said Rypien. "I don’t think I can see myself doing something like that again."
"I just want to use this time here to get better and come back better than I have before," he added.
Rypien’s punishment was two games more than the four that former NHLer Matthew Barnaby received for a similar in Florida 10 years ago and one fewer than the seven games handed to former Canuck Doug Halward for punching a fan in the stands in 1982.
Canucks and Wild officials and players, including Staubitz, have expressed support for the decision to sit Rypien for six games. But fans have expressed their anger on social media websites, contending Rypien got off lightly. One tweet questioned whether fans should wear body armour to games and another labelled Rypien a"coward."
The suspension is another setback for Rypien, who has played sparingly while battling injuries and undisclosed personal issues the past two seasons. Rypien praised the club for supporting him during his difficult times.
"The fact that they’re in my corner and helped me out, I’m really thankful for that obviously," said Rypien. "I’m very grateful for that, obviously. My mindset now is that I want to make them proud and make it up to them and do that the best way I can . . . off the ice and the way I play the game."
Rypien, who faces a battle to stay in the lineup when he is eligible to return, said he is not worried that the incident will reduce Canucks management and coaches' loyalty towards him.
"I’m a pretty simple guy and obviously play the game with high energy, high emotion at times," said Rypien. "It’s comforting to me that the people who really know me know the character that I am."
Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said the incident will not change Rypien. He is extremely tough mentally and has experience dealing with adversity.
"I think everybody should look at themselves in the mirror," said Bieksa. "He’s not perfect, but he’s had a pretty good track record for seven years now. He’s done something that I think every guy in the league has thought about doing before, and he did it one time, so he’s accepted his punishment."
Bieksa praised Rypien for apologizing to his teammates and taking responsibility for his actions.
"It’s a situation where he lost his cool and it’s happened to everybody on the team at times," said Bieksa. "This is a little bit more public than everyone else’s, but he’s accepted responsibility for it. He knows that he made a mistake and it’s time to move on."
When asked what the club will do if Rypien is involved in a similar incident, Vigneault said "it’s not going to happen."
"He made a mistake, he’s apologized for it, we’re turning the page and we’re moving on," said Vigneault. "I have a lot of confidence in that young man, like I have a lot of confidence in our other players."
The coach denied that the organization is giving Rypien, who took a leave of absence for personal reasons two seasons ago, extra attention or help for his difficulties.
"We’re doing nothing different for Rip than we would do for any of our other players," said Vigneault, adding the club spends a lot of time working with players on skills and mental aspects of their game.
Rypien is eligible to return Nov. 6 at home against Detroit.