Kevin Bieksa tells the story of a fight.
It was just one of many in the veteran defenceman’s long career — and this one was way back in the minors, when he was with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. But Bieksa can see it clearly.
He squared off with one guy while right behind him his teammate and friend Rick Rypien battled another. They were surrounded like Batman and Robin facing off against the Joker’s thugs — pow! Bam! Boom! And they both won. They laughed about it in the dressing room afterwards — the oddity of standing back to back, fighting together like superheroes.
Bieksa loves that story. He’s told it many times and he’ll tell it many more. Just like he loves to tell the story about being called up to the Vancouver Canucks from the Moose for the first time on the same day as Rypien. It was 2005 and they were both still kids. There so much unknown possibility ahead of them. Bieksa was first to suit up for their new team, but took a while to get on the board. Rypien scored his first goal on his first shot of his first shift.
“He outdid me for sure,” Bieksa laughs.
“It’s been six years now,” he says. “Rick’s story is one that I don’t want to go away.”
And so Bieksa tells the story of a snowstorm. After a Canucks game in Edmonton during the 2008–09 season, the team travelled on without him so he could drive through the night to find his friend. Rypien had taken a leave of absence from the Canucks. He had confided in Bieksa about his struggle with depression at training camp that year. Rypien hadn’t been diagnosed then — he just knew he was fighting something that was difficult to explain.
“He said he wasn’t feeling right and that he wasn’t coming back,” Bieksa recalls.
And then no one could get a hold of him. Bieksa was worried. He drove with Craig Heisinger, then the general manager of the Manitoba Moose and another confidant of Rypien’s, through an Albertan snowstorm for more than five hours to Rypien’s hometown in Crowsnest Pass. They found their friend, and convinced him to return to Vancouver and move in with Bieksa’s young family.
Bieksa tells the story of a closed door. Rypien barricaded himself in his room in the Bieksas’ condo and the only way they could get him to eat was by sending in their two-year-old son, Cole, who carried in the food on a tray. Rypien loved Cole. The door always opened for him.
“We used my son quite a bit, actually,” Bieksa says. “Rypien was awesome with kids. Towards the end of his life he started wanting to help kids as much as possible. He was kind of coming to terms with the fact that he had an illness and he was trying to fight it.”
Bieksa tells stories that make him smile. About how Rypien was there for so many big moments in his life — like when Cole was born — and how Katie Bieksa had told Rypien she was pregnant with their second child, Reese, before Kevin even knew. He tells the story of Rypien signing a contract with the Winnipeg Jets in 2011 and how he spoke regularly with his friend through that off-season, and hoped that everything was turning around for him. Rypien had been diagnosed with depression and was getting the help he needed.
And he tells stories that still make him cry. The phone rang after he’d tucked his kids in that August night. It was Heisinger. Rypien was dead. He’d taken his own life. Bieksa sat in his office alone, waiting for Katie to come downstairs to tell her that the worst had come true.
“It’s a little bit of a blur…. We just sat around talking about it, crying for hours,” Bieksa says. “You start to think about what you could have done to prevent this. Did we do everything? What more could we have done?”
In the years since, Bieksa has kept talking about his friend and his disease, because it was something that he rarely discussed before. He’s worked with Rypien’s family on initiatives to promote awareness of and decrease stigma around mental illness. He worked with mindcheck.ca — an initiative to help youth and young adults in B.C. connect with mental-health resources. He’s working on new initiatives in California to do the same while he plays with the Ducks. In the tough world of pro hockey, he’s speaking out to make sure others know that there is no shame in getting help. Programs like the NHL’s Hockey Talks are helping with that.
“Up until five years ago I had never heard anything about mental illness in my career,” Bieksa says. “Everything I ever heard was ‘Be mentally tough’ — coaches would say it means sucking it up and playing through injury and not complaining and doing whatever it takes to perform. So certainly I’m hoping it’s better now, but we have along way to go.”
Last year, Bieksa says, mental health was discussed with Ducks players during an education seminar for the first time.
“It took some time,” he says. “But it’s finally been brought up.”
With awareness continuing to grow, Bieksa keeps telling stories. A couple weeks ago, he shared this on Twitter.
It’s been six years since Rypien died, but Bieksa keeps talking about his friend and the fight. They’re side by side still. In his heart, now, and in his voice — Rypien’s story lives on.