Who Fights for the Fighters? What We Can Learn from the NHL’s Rick Rypien and Derek BoogaardEssays, Sports — By Ross Gale on July 9, 2012 at 6:21 am
The death of two National Hockey League tough guys last summer—who both participated in the league’s substance abuse and behavioral health program—has sent shock waves throughout the hockey community. Rick Rypien had just signed with the Winnipeg Jets, and Derek Boogaard was the New York Ranger’s enforcer and one of the most—if not the most—intimidating players in the league.
What they had in common was their ability and willingness to accept sacrificial roles. They are our modern day warriors, not of finesse and flash, but of blood and pain. They also had their flaws. Boogaard’s death was caused by a combination of alcohol and oxycotin (it is reported that he had substance abuse problems). Rypien struggled with depression and was granted an indefinite leave of absence in last year’s season to deal with personal matters (at this time his cause of death is unknown).
Rypien’s career was plagued by injuries. He went undrafted in both the WHL and NHL, but worked his way into rosters as a third and fourth line role player with a combination of grit and the ability to create scoring chances.
Boogaard used his natural size and strength to play a part for both the Minnesota Wild and Rangers. Nicknamed the “Boogeyman,” he was feared by everyone in the NHL. His career was also stunted by injuries.
They are physical opposites: Rypien at five feet and ten inches and 190 pounds (although listed an inch taller) and Boogaard at six feet seven inches and 265 pounds of steel and heft.
On October 7th, 2009, the fifth game of the season for both the Canucks and Canadians. With thirteen minutes left in the 3rd period the Canucks lead by four goals when Rypien skated behind the net beside the Hab’s alternate captain, Hal Gill, a man nine inches taller and fifty pounds heavier, and challenged him to a fight.
Nothing would prompt this from an ordinary man, but Rypien was not ordinary, he’d built his career on scrap and gut. It might have been his objection to Brian Gionta’s roughing on Alex Burrows only minutes before. But Rypien couldn’t challenge Gionta (the captain and protected leader); he had to challenge the team’s enforcer.
As you can see in the video of the fight, Rypien lands his blows, takes a few more, and stands up for his teammates. Gill’s arms are significantly longer, his punches land with more force, but Rypien, whose father was a Canadian boxing champion, uses his left to land on Gill’s face and his right to attack the body. He’s feisty and quick. He moves close to Gill’s body to eliminate the extension of his arms. There is no clear winner. One might call it a draw. But to stand up to the toughest guy on the ice, to have struck him in the face and protected oneself in the battle, this sends a very clear statement: “Don’t fuck with us.” The Canucks score two more goals before the last buzzer and the humiliation is palpable.
The fear in those who dropped the gloves with Boogaard was just as evident. The way they hesitated, moving away from the giant as he approached, circling him cautiously. Boogaard pirouettes, holding his hands uniquely in front of him, occasionally swiping at his opponent’s closest hand. He lacked balance and doesn’t land many of his blows. His presence was enough. His fists an ample detriment. All it took was one blow. Boogaard’s punches are long swooping rockets unleashed with reckless upheaval. He shattered helmets and jaw bones and handed out concussions like candy. He was brought into the big apple to protect the list of young stars the Rangers coddled.
I admire both Rypien and Boogaard because they played important roles for their teammates, acting as protectors, sacrificing their own bodies for the greater goal. They suffered within those roles. Staying healthy was a challenge. Contributing consistently became impossible.
They were broken men, not just physically. The sad truth is that they also needed the same sort of help and support they selflessly offered. They needed someone to fight for them, to stand up against the big giants of life.
It’s a start that the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is reviewing their substance abuse and behavioral health program. I hope they can create enforcers of hope and health for these young professionals who seem to have it all. What we see in the spotlight makes us forget what’s often hiding in the shadows.
We can learn from them, these warriors. I just wish we could have learned sooner.