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Wednesday, August 17, 2011
More questions after Rick Rypien's death

By Scott Burnside

This is what we do in the face of unexplained tragedy.

We ask questions for which there are precious few answers.

Rick Rypien
Rick Rypien twice took a leave of absence during his six seasons with the Canucks organization to deal with personal issues.

We demand change and action without really understanding what it was that led to the tragedy in the first place.

We wonder at what might have been done differently, what signs might have been missed.

Mostly, though, we try to make our way through the tangle of futility that always follows in the wake of such loss. It is so even for those who didn't know Rick Rypien, the Winnipeg Jets forward who never got to pull on the franchise's new jersey.

Rypien was found dead in his Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, home earlier this week. Even as tributes came pouring in for the scrappy winger who was, pound for pound, one of the fiercest players in the league, officials weren't releasing the exact cause of death. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police referred to it as a "non-suspicious sudden death."

And yet with every comment -- whether it was from a close friend and former teammate such as Tanner Glass or Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger, who had known Rypien since the forward's junior days in Western Canada -- the implication has been that Rypien's mental health issues were directly linked to his untimely death.

An emotional Heisinger told reporters in Winnipeg this week that there were no signs of alcohol or drug abuse but that depression was at the root of Rypien's problems, even though it appeared the 27-year-old had turned a corner in recent months after twice leaving the Vancouver Canucks this past season for personal reasons.

After he signed with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League late last season, Rypien's comments suggested he believed he was able to deal with his own problems and help others as well.

"The more that I go on, the more I can talk about it," Rypien told reporters in Winnipeg this past March. "Hopefully, one day I can help other hockey players that might be experiencing difficulty with whatever they're dealing with off the ice."

Those are haunting words given what happened this week and the fact that no one can seem to bring themselves to actually say what exactly happened to Rypien. Yet surely there is some hope in those words, too.

There is at least a modicum of hope that players who suffer from mental health issues aren't alone despite the helplessness that a loss such as Rypien's represents. Maybe there are many more stories that turn out the way Rypien imagined his might turn out. We must believe there are many stories that never get told because people find out they aren't alone and there is a way out.

We spoke with deputy commissioner Bill Daly on Wednesday about Rypien's death and the important role the joint NHL/NHL Players' Association behavioral program plays in situations such as Rypien's.

"Most people view it as a drug program," Daly said of the program that came into being in 1996 and has steadily evolved over the years to become "a very comprehensive employee assistance program."

Over time, the program has gained a tremendous amount of credibility among players, perhaps because it is a step removed from their direct employers, the individual NHL teams.

The program is highly secretive. For the most part, players enter the program anonymously, and the nature of the treatment is fiercely guarded unless players themselves are prepared to discuss it.

Whatever problem a player might face, the program's doctors ensure he is referred to specialists in that particular area. The program doesn't open its doors just to players, either, but for family members, too.

Over the years, the scope of the program hasn't changed (it was always designed to cast a wide net over player issues), but the players' acceptance that it is somewhere they can go to get help has grown significantly, Daly said.

Players sometimes come to the program of their own volition. Each player has a card that provides contact information that can be accessed any time the player feels the need, regardless of the problems he might be facing. As the comfort level with the program has increased, more players have been recommended by former teammates and friends, current teammates, coaches and management personnel, Daly said.

"Over time, other people within the hockey community have become much more comfortable with referring cases to the program," Daly said. "It's not always self-initiated."

The safety net that the program represents isn't foolproof. It doesn't catch all the problems. Earlier this summer, New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard died after an overdose of Oxycodone and alcohol. The deaths of Boogaard and Rypien were quickly linked with the implication being that this is some sort of epidemic.

Daly said it's unwise to draw parallels between the two because they represented different issues. Boogaard's issues were addiction-related, while Rypien suffered from mental health problems, the deputy commissioner said.

Players who struggle with either can expect to find help within the league's behavioral program, but the fact that two players died in a short period of time does not necessarily suggest anything beyond the tragedy each represents.

Does that mean the league and the players' association stand idly by? No.

"My guess is we'll talk at the appropriate time with the players' association, making sure that we're comfortable with all of the mechanisms and programs we have in place, which are extensive," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told The Canadian Press on Wednesday at the league's research and development camp in Toronto. "I don't think any sports league does more than we do, but maybe there's more, as we focus on it, that we need to focus on.

"I know it's always hard for people to accept, but sports is a microcosm of society in general. And life isn't always easy."

Are there things the program can do better, differently? Perhaps.

"They happened, and you have to take a look at how and why they happened," Daly said. "But I don't think it's a commentary at all on the effectiveness of the program we have in place."

At times like these, it's reassuring to know that not every question is without an answer.