By Stu Hackel
It would be wrong to not begin today’s post with thoughts about Rick Rypien, the 27-year-old former Canuck who was found dead on Monday. Rypien was set to play for the Jets this season, and was called “the ultimate teammate” by Mike Keane, the former NHLer who roomed with Rypien on the AHL Manitoba Moose. More from Keane and others can be read in a recommended column by Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press.
Rypien is the second NHL player to pass away this offseason. Both he and Derek Boogaard were fighters and some have commented that those who play that role in the NHL can carry some heavy emotional baggage. Despite the admiration he earned from teammates, Rypien certainly had issues, which manifested themselves in numerous ways, including shoving a fan last season, which earned a suspension, plus two extended leaves during his time with the Canucks to deal with his problems — problems that were even more serious than many suspected.
“The tortured heavyweight had become a hockey cliché,” writes Mark Spector on Sportsnet.ca in his very interesting column today in which he rattles off the names of some who it fits — Dave Semenko, Bob Probert, John Kordic, Louie DeBrusk and Boogaard.
“To quiet the demons, they chose drink, or drugs, or constant angst. And it allowed them to deal with the behemoth who awaited in the next town, on the next roster, or the children who looked up at them innocently and asked, ‘Are you going to beat up so and so next game?’
“You never see the fear when they stand there in front of 18,000 fans, bare-knuckle fighting under the glare of the TV cameras,” Spector continues. “But so many of them speak later of how scared they were at that moment; how they barely got out of the shower after the game when the thought of the tough guy from tomorrow night’s opponent darkened their head space.
“The toughest part, a fighter once told us, is that guys like Rypien could never let that fear show. That there was no one to talk to about it. Their persona is such a big part of the role as the protector on their team, that there is nowhere for that player to unload his baggage.”
However, it’s important not to overreact to the awful coincidence of two hockey pugilists passing away within months of each other. Not all enforcers have that dark component that Spector writes about as part of their makeup. And it would be equally wrong to believe skill players are somehow immune from pressures and psychological imbalances. Three come to mind immediately: Frank Mahovlich, a Hall of Famer forward and Ron Ellis, his teammate on the Maple Leafs in the ’60s, and more recently, Stephane Richer, the high-scoring winger for the Canadiens and Devils. They have all spoken openly about their battles with depression. And there certainly are others.
Of course, goalies have always been vulnerable to what were once called “nervous breakdowns;” Terry Sawchuk, one of the NHL’s all-time best, had a few of them (and now it is believed he suffered from bipolar disorder). My happy-go-lucky hockey hero, Gump Worsley, had a breakdown or two as well. The great Glenn Hall got so wound up, he vomited before every game. These were called “occupational hazards” in the ’60s.
Additionally, as is now widely known, depression can be an after-effect of concussions, which numerous NHLers have endured. And that’s nothing new; you might (or might not) want to read this account of the frightening post-concussion symptoms suffered by Red Wings defenseman Johnny Gallagher in the 1930s. The connection between fighting and concussions and depression is likely a legitimate one, although one needn’t be a fighter to suffer a concussion playing hockey. And one can suffer from depression without ever having been concussed.
This is a tough sport and we often take for granted the men who play it, not always keeping in mind the toll it takes to make and stick at the game’s highest level (and that’s not to mention the many more whose talent or other factors leave them just short of the NHL). Almost all love their jobs, the best are very well compensated, but all that means little when accompanied by the sort of suffering some have to endure. We tend to see them skating around as entertainers, superhuman objects of adulation or scorn. But beneath those colorful sweaters and bulky pads are real people who are just as susceptible to human frailties as you and I.
A Free Man: Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin was released from the Maricopa County “Tent City” jail on Sunday after serving 15 days of his 30-day sentence for impaired driving. He’ll serve the remaining time under house arrest at his Arizona home, pay a $1,500 fine and take part in alcohol counseling.
Khabibulin was clocked doing 70 mph in a 45-mph zone on Feb. 8, 2010. He blood alcohol level was measured at .164, more than twice the legal limit and considered in the extreme range.
He was on a work-release program for the 15 days behind barbed wire at the minimum-security facility in Phoenix, but slept on a cot under a tent at night outdoors with other inmates. Outdoors during the summer in the Arizona desert is not much fun, even at night.
The “Bulin Wall” was a model prisoner. “No incidents or problems whatsoever,” Sgt. Jesse Spurgin of the Maricopa County Jail told Matt Dykstra of the Edmonton Sun, “He behaved himself perfectly. I’m sure he’s happy this whole situation is over and he’s ready to move on.”