Rick Rypien and the modern concussion epidemic

The tributes began pouring in yesterday morning from former teammates and opponents, confirming that recently deceased former Canuck Rick Rypien was respected throughout the NHL, in spite of his erratic behaviour and rumoured battles with depression.

Often referred to as the toughest pound-for-pound player in the NHL, Rypien quickly became a fan favourite in Vancouver. He began his career on a professional tryout contract in 2004 with the Manitoba Moose, the Canucks’ minor league affiliate. He was one of Moose GM Craig Heisinger’s many great finds: a diamond in the rough -- with a heavy emphasis on the rough.

Rypien got his first call up with the big club a year later, eventually spending parts of six seasons with the Canucks, registering 9 goals and 7 assists in 119 games.

His reputation was that of an old school hockey player, never afraid to toss the gloves, never hesitant to come to a teammate’s defence. There is a lineage of tough-as-nails stalwarts in Vancouver; the likes of Orland Kurtenbach, Harold Snepsts, and Gino Odjick are never far from our thoughts. Fans are always looking to anoint a successor, and Rypien came close.

I recently completed a season of writing and reporting for Canucks.com. During the interview process, my future boss lobbed a softball question:

“If you could go on The Amazing Race with any Canuck, who would you choose?”

“Rick Rypien,” I replied.

Awkward silence. It was an odd answer -- just days before, Rypien was suspended for attacking a fan in Minnesota and had subsequently taken an indefinite leave of absence from the team. Quick to disassociate myself from the practice of athlete-on-fan violence, I explained that in spite of his recent transgression, Rypien was a class act; he was fearless and he always had his teammates’ backs.

Perhaps Rypien’s greatest coup was a fight from October of 2009 with Montreal Canadiens giant Hal Gill. Gill had 7 inches and 50 pounds on Rypien. Butterbean vs. De La Hoya. Rypien won the fight, and received a standing ovation from the Rogers Arena crowd.

“He was a fan favourite in Vancouver and would have been a fan favourite in Winnipeg for sure,” said former teammate Shane O’brien.

“He’d be the first guy running in there to protect anybody, from your best player to his linemate. He was one of the toughest players to ever play the game, and a great teammate.”

This morning, former NHL defenseman Brad Lukowich called him the “nicest guy I played with during my time in Vancouver.”

"I’m in disbelief about Ripper (Rypien). I sat beside him in the locker room in Vancouver, such a good kid with a huge heart. My thoughts with his family,” former Canuck Brendan Morrison added.

Early speculation is that Rypien’s death was depression-related, reigniting the simmering debate on headshots and fighting in the NHL and their effect on its players. It’s a controversy that forced the NHL to increase penalties for headshots mid-season in 2010-11, in a panicked attempt to counter the epidemic. But the rule changes are slow in coming for a sport that has seen the loss of many current stars to early retirement because of headshots.

Former NHL heavyweight Bob Probert recently died at the age of 45 from a heart attack. He bequeathed his brain to researchers at Boston University, who discovered that Probert suffered from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a degenerative condition that leads to memory loss, depression, and dementia.

Probert might be hockey’s canary in the mineshaft. It’s scary to think that the full impact of concussions won’t be known for another 20-30 years, when this generation reaches middle age.

A 2008 study by the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill revealed that the prevalence of depression in athletes who’ve suffered head trauma is 8 times higher than that of the general population. Recurrent concussions and headshots show strong links to depression, memory loss, irritability and anxiety.

The statistics of depression among athletes who’ve suffered head trauma raises a number of questions about the safety conditions of modern sports. It’s a debate that crosses the borders of all contact sports, and will only deepen as the size and speed of the games increase.

It’s a debate that should continue, in the hopes that we might prevent future tragedies from happening.

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