Two hundred high-school students sat silently, hanging on Kevin Bieksa's every word as he told the story of Rick Rypien's struggle with mental illness.
The Canucks defenceman was one of many speakers who shared their story about mental health on Wednesday, during the Building A Mindful Community Youth Summit at BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver. Joining Bieksa was the Canucks Vice-President of Communications, T.C. Carling, who spearheaded the Canucks MindCheck.ca website, as well as the NHL's Hockey Talks initiative promoting mental health awareness.
Kevin had a special bond with Rick as each of them started their professional hockey careers with the Canucks farm club in Manitoba in 2005.
"I remember seeing him and thinking 'who is this little kid who thinks he's going to play on our team with all these of men?' but he quickly defied odds and we became friends instantly."
The new friends shared many things. They were both tough guys, more than willing to drop the gloves for their teammates. They had the same leave it all on the ice mentality. The two were even called up to make their NHL debuts together.
"He scored his first game. I had to wait 56 more to get my first," admitted Kevin to chuckles from the crowd.
Having taken similar path's to their NHL dreams, the bond and trust between the two strengthened to the point Rick confided in Kevin that his anxiety and unexplained fears almost caused him to stay home from Canucks 2008 Training Camp.
From that moment on, Bieksa knew that he had a critical role in helping his friend.
"More than anything I was just a sounding board, listening to his problems," Kevin told the group of teens from high schools throughout British Columbia. "Rick just liked to talk things over. His fears, his worries, whatever. And the next day he would feel better."
It's this role, being there for your friends, even if you don't really have a grasp on how they are feeling, that Bieksa stressed more than anything.
"As a peer, as a friend, to listen and a lot of the focuses aren't clear. You can't see them, so you have to err on the side of caution, listen to what they are saying" said Bieksa. "Because when the time comes you're going to have to help them get some help."
After Kevin shared his and Rick's story, TC told the group about Hockey Talks and MindCheck.ca, initiatives the team has put in place, to not only honour Rick but to help others struggling with same issues Rick did by keeping a conversation going.
"We really wanted to make it what Rick wanted. Despite what people may think, Rick did talk about his problems with a small group of people, but his desire was talk about it with more people," said Carling before opening the floor to questions.
And from there the conversation flowed easily, as high-schoolers asked difficult and revealing questions.
They wanted to know how Rick and his support group of Kevin and TC coped with their issues.
"Did Rick telling you of his problem change your opinion of him?" asked a teen-aged boy sitting in the back of the auditorium. "No," Kevin answered, "but that was one of Rick's biggest concerns."
Another girl raised her hand and told the group that playing sports helped her when she "wasn't feeling her best," which TC and Kevin said was exactly how Rick felt as well.
Getting people to speak about uncomfortable topics like this was the goal of the day for the two young organizers, Brent Seal and Sarah Irving from the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre at BC Children's Hospital.
"Having guys who are heros to kids, like the Canucks, come in and talk about how these feelings and issues are something they are dealing with too just really helps people understand that they aren't alone. That's a major issue with people battling mental health issues," said Irving.
"Opening up the dialogue about mental health is the biggest challenge and starting at a young age is just huge," said Seal who also works with the MindCheck.ca.
The Canucks MindCheck.ca website has had over 100,000 visitors, over half of which have taken the self-assessment test to help people identify symptoms in themselves and loved ones. All seven Canadian NHL clubs are participating in Hockey Talks this season, which Carling hopes will one day include all 30 NHL franchises.