More Thoughts On Rick Rypien, Head Trauma — (Capital Region Sports)

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Capital Region Sports (NY)

August 19, 2011

The hockey world was stunned by the untimely death of hard-hitting forward Rick Rypien earlier this week. Rypien, who spent six seasons with the Vancouver Canucks organization, was signed by the recently reformed Winnipeg Jets this summer.

Since his death, numerous reports of Rypien’s ten-year battle with depression have come to light. Not that it was ever a secret. Reporters in Vancouver knew of Rypien’s emotional and mental struggles. Yet Rypien remained quiet about his issues, never choosing to openly express his personal turmoil, and the press did the same.

He twice left the Canucks for personal reasons, assumed to be depression-related. He did attend therapy and was prescribed anti-depressants. The NHLPA is said to have one of the most comprehensive substance abuse and behavioral health programs in professional sports, to which Rypien was referred.

The exact cause of death is not yet known. While constantly insinuated, no one is saying what everyone believes to be true: Rick Rypien committed suicide.

When boxer Alexis Arguello allegedly shot himself in the chest a little over two years ago, I remember reading a telling quote. I’ll paraphrase: You can fight depression your entire life, and beat it 1,000 times. It only has to beat you once.

(Whether Arguello killed himself or was murdered is besides the point)

Rypien was a tough center, known as much for his own boxing ability as his hockey prowess. He could certainly skate and  score, as he demonstrated at the AHL level with the Manitoba Moose. But he knew, when called up to the NHL, he wasn’t there to score goals or make finesse plays. He was there to hit hard, and fight harder.

But he was no goon. You never heard opposing players complain of his tactics. He didn’t leave his feet to hit, or hit players in the back, and he certainly never turtled in a fight. “Ripper” as they called him, never backed down from a good fight. Even the opposing enforcers he tangled with have spoken out on his behalf.

So inevitably some are beginning to try to make a connection between Rypien’s hard play, and his assumed suicide. Despite no hard evidence, many sports writers assert Rypien’s autopsy will show a brain with early chronic traumatic encephalopathy due to fighting and hitting. They make the case that, despite a decade long struggle with depression and little research on the early effects of CTE, it was ultimately CTE that forced Rypien to suicide. The bottom line, they say, is it’s the NHL’s fault for allowing the “barbaric” aspects of the game (fighting, hitting, etc) to continue.

The fighting argument, no pun intended, has been beaten to death. No one can say for sure that there is a direct correlation between the repeated blows to the head suffered in hockey and depression. The researchers that study CTE, dementia pugilistica, and other similar forms of brain damage do say that some sufferers experience depression or social instability. I’m not one to argue with doctors.

However, it’s clear that the vast majority of players — whether it’s in the NHL, NFL, or professional boxing — never suffer emotional trauma to the extent Rick Rypien did. As quickly as detractors of the old-school NHL mentality mention Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard, they ignore Ted Green and Dave Schultz. The latter two are considered to be among the baddest, toughest enforcers the sport has ever produced.  Just as quickly as detractors mention Muhammed Ali (whose Parkinsonian-like symptoms may or may not be related to boxing), they dismiss George Chuvalo. And what about Ken Griffey Jr’s suicide attempt? I don’t think it was a case of punch-drunk syndrome.

No one can argue that repeated blows to the head are a good thing. There are things different leagues can do to protect their players. Most sports have eliminated blindside hits on defenseless players. Most have cut out hits to the head.  But now some neurologists are saying it’s the repetitive non-concussive hits that are worse for football players, boxers, and hockey players. Soccer players have even been found to suffer from CTE. What’s the solution? Ban sports all together? Live in a plastic bubble?

Maybe, just maybe, Rick Rypien was a troubled individual who just happened to play hockey. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the following in regards to Rypien’s death: “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.”

I’ve been hit in the head more times than is probably safe. Thankfully, I don’t yet display any of the so-called early signs of brain damage. If, God forbid, at some point in the future I do begin to suffer from those symptoms, it was fun while it lasted. The lessons I’ve learned, friends I’ve made, and the people I’ve met through sports have made me who I am.

I guess I could have taken up different hobbies. Maybe instead of skateboarding I should have sat inside and played video games, or built things out of Legos. But that’s not healthy. Don’t kids need exercise and interaction? Maybe instead of boxing I should have ran cross country. But isn’t that bad for your knees and joints? Maybe instead of hockey I should have power-walked. Kids wouldn’t have made fun of me for it, right? Yeah, power-walking sounds like a blast. At least I would have been safe. Unless I got hit by a car. Then they’d probably try to ban that too.