Dropping The Gloves With Yourself: Hockey, Mental Health, Tragedy & Redemption

I need to make three apologies before I start this post, which was “inspired” (if you can use such a word in this context) by my reaction to the tragic death of ex-Vancouver Canuck and Winnipeg Jet Rick Rypien at the age of 27 three years ago. This blog was originally written a day or two after he died in August 2011-but is being revisited now as a riposte and also by recent blogs talking about the “dark side” of hockey and presenting a relentlessly bleak view of how pro sports can only ever affect those of us with mental health issues in a negative fashion.

Firstly, sorry to those who have been waiting for the latest in EIHL news. Had a lot on this week with various other projects so will catch up with those as soon as I can.

Secondly, I apologise in advance that this post may venture into territory some may find a little darker than your usual hockey blog. You’ve been warned.

And thirdly, to those of you who may finish reading this and think that it doesn’t really have a coherent point, I apologise also. It kind of comes from the heart, this one…for reasons that you’ll see shortly. If anything, think of it as some sort of tribute to a fallen warrior…if that doesn’t sound too clichéd.

Now, on we go.

2011 was a terrible off-season for the NHL. Not so much for any events on the ice as for the loss of three men way before their time…first Derek Boogard early in the off-season, Wade Belak, and Rypien. All men were physically fit, living the hockey star dream of many, and all had had some time away from hockey due to injuries.

The Boogaard death was tragic in itself, and I reacted to it the way most people did-with sympathy for his family, sadness that a player who was fun to watch was gone while still in the prime of his career…all the usual emotions. The same with Belak’s.

But Rypien’s death hit me differently. As the news broke and speculation (still not confirmed, we should point out) spread and continues to spread that Rypien may have taken his own life, my thoughts this time round were not just a case of “wow, that’s tragic” this time.

They were a reaction of “holy shit. That could have been me”.

It was and is heavily speculated around the NHL that Rypien suffered from mental health issues. Very few specifics were ever released, if any at all, but they did cause the third-line grinder/enforcer to take several leaves of absence from the game he loved over his career.

And because of this, he’s a player who I identified with a little more than most.

Now-before you start thinking “who the hell is this guy and what does he know?” sure, I’m not an NHL player. I’m not someone who has or probably ever will have to deal with the pressures engendered by playing sports for a living.

But I am someone who has struggled and continues to deal with mental health issues. In my particular case, it’s a (thankfully) mild form of bipolar disorder, and also clinical depression.

This causes me to have fairly frequent and unpredictable mood swings. There are some days where I am immensely happy, positive, creative, and feel like I can do anything I wish. These are the incredible, manic-high days, and they are fairly rare.

Then (and thankfully these are the most common) there are the “normal” days. Sometimes these are better, sometimes worse, but usually, they work out alright, similar to those of almost everyone else on the planet.

But there are other days still. These are the ones when I’m convinced that anything I do isn’t good enough (including any posts on this blog), I’m pitied rather than tolerated by anyone I know, and any contribution my life could possibly make has no value to anyone or anything on the surface of the planet. Thankfully, although I used to suffer massively with them, now I’m on medication they are usually rare and if they do happen, I have lived long enough with this problem and evolved coping strategies that help me get through. In fact, few people can probably tell when I’m having one of those days…a fact that gives me immense pride.

But still, I have to fight with myself to get through. And once or twice in my life, I’ve dropped the gloves with my inner trouble self and come perilously close to losing.

Several years ago, in the grip of one particularly bad swing, I found myself standing on an overpass late at night, standing staring at the cars passing beneath, and just for a fleeting second, the thought entered my head…

“Would it really be such a bad thing if I just jumped?”.

I tore myself away from that rail with several thoughts-family, friendship…all the clichés that people say help in such a situation.

I’ve had to do it again since-the most recent a matter of a few weeks ago while standing at a level crossing as a train approached after a bad day of failing to find a job and being insulted by hockey fans on Twitter for something I’d written about Coventry, and thinking “sod it. If I step in front of this train all my pain will go away”.

But I’m also convinced to this day that hockey played a part, however small, in saving me.

My attempts at playing hockey are with a group of friends at an amateur level in a hockey backwater country. I can skate a little, handle a puck, and kid myself that at the level I play at I’m not that bad, but I have always known that hockey for me is nothing more than something I do for fun.

But what it is is an escape. On the ice, no matter what kind of day I’m having, I know that any of the internal fights that I have with myself stop. I’m happy. Hockey is by far the best antidepressant I know. And this, perhaps, is one of the reasons I love it so much-because of a truth that in my case seems to be evident:

Demons don’t skate.

But the Rypien case has shaken my faith in that truth, just a little. It seems that even playing the game he loved couldn’t help. Rypien, a player who was know for his lack of fear and willingness to take on any opponent at any time, a player who appeared to be finally dealing with his problems and was immensely hopeful of getting back into the NHL with the Jets after dealing with the kind of problems that simply can’t be properly explained to anyone who hasn’t dealt with them, may have been challenged by his demons to drop ’em once too often. And this time round, after years of dealing with it, there is the chance that maybe he just didn’t “wanna go” anymore. And that is the scariest thing for me.

Rypien is not the first hockey player to suffer from mental health issues. Tom Cavanagh, a former San Jose Sharks forward, committed suicide in January 2011-he had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and was institutionalized several times.

The thing that makes both these deaths so tragic for me, and hockey in general, is that these are men who played a sport they loved, had fought battles off the ice that few people could conceive, and (certainly in Rypien’s case) looked like they were recovering.

It raises the question…how many other NHLers are out there fighting lonely battles, fearful that they’ll be stigmatized by fans and players alike as weak for admitting that they perhaps aren’t supermen, that they can’t fight their feelings alone.

But most of all it reminds us that these players who we pay to watch are not perfect. They’re flesh and bone too, and they sometimes need help. And it reminds us that the toughest battles in hockey aren’t fought in the corners or in front of the net by many, but in their own minds.

For that reason, Rick Rypien should be viewed with true respect.

Whatever people thought of his style of play, he battled for years with a foe that never stops coming, never gives up, never gets tired, and wants nothing more than to kick the living crap out of anyone it comes into contact with. And he battled hard and well, just as he did on the ice.

Tragically, though, this was a case where the demons won. But I hope that it leads those who may be battling similar issues to realise that in the game of live, sometimes maybe you need someone to back you up when you drop the gloves, and there is no shame in asking. I found my help in hockey and the people I share it with…and it’s probably one of the reasons why I’m still here to write this. I found it in the friendship and camaraderie of hockey.

It’s been three years since he died now. RIP, Rick Rypien. You dropped the gloves and stood up against an opponent that no-one ever should have to, and you fought well enough to inspire this writer who you never met and only ever saw you on TV to continue to do the same every single day. You and your willingness to fight for so long are part of the reason I and others like me are still here. Thank you, sir. May you find peace.

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