A broken leg on New Year’s Eve 2005, followed by a severely sprained thumb during last year’s preseason and a nagging groin problem that wouldn’t heal and eventually required surgery would be enough to test anyone’s character. Fortunately, for both Rypien and the Canucks, character is something the 23-year-old now in his fourth year as a pro has plenty of. And despite all the setbacks, the feisty forward from Coleman, Alberta has managed to show coaches and Canuck fans glimpses of the things that could make him a valuable contributor to the hockey club.
He brings energy and emotion and passion and a willingness to do the dirty work that every successful hockey team needs. The only problem is the toll that style has taken on his 5’11” 170 pound frame. But ‘all-out’ is the only way Rypien knows how to play the game, so don’t expect any changes to his approach through training camp and into another preseason.
“Last year was kind of bad luck, but that’s over and done with so I’ve moved on from that and I’m ready for this year,” says Rypien, excited for the chance to once again show head coach Alain Vigneault what he can do. “Playing for him in Manitoba and up here a little bit, just knowing his style and what he expects out of me, I’ve just got to bring that to the table, stay healthy and hopefully everything else will work out.”
Rypien did enough in last year’s preseason to earn a spot on the big club. But the thumb injury suffered in a scrap in a game against Anaheim forced him to watch as the season began. After a 14-game rehab stint in Manitoba, Rypien was recalled by the Canucks in early December and on his first shift of the season set the tone in a key divisional contest against Colorado. He raced in on the forecheck and delivered a thunderous body check on defenseman Brett Clark and was promptly challenged by the Avs’ Ian Laperierre. The gloves came off, the fists started flying and the two engaged in a wildly entertaining middle weight battle.
Six shifts into his next game – two nights later against Edmonton – Rypien’s season came to another premature end when he suffered a groin tear late in the first period of a 4-0 loss to the Oilers.
In all, at both the NHL and AHL levels, Rick Rypien has played just 18 games since breaking his leg in Minnesota 21 months ago. So he’s more than a little eager to start the process all over again this week at Victoria’s Bear Mountain Arena.
“I’ve missed a lot of hockey and being out that long it starts to wear on a guy, so it’s great to be back on the ice. But I can’t over-complicate things out there. I’ve got to keep it real simple, more than usual. I can’t be too fancy. It’s not my game so I’ve got to stay away from that,” says Rypien, who’s been back on the ice since early August testing the groin to make sure he’s ready for this week and beyond.
“I’ve just got to work hard and get back in the rhythm of things.”
“Ryp hasn’t played much in the last two years and it’s unfortunate that he’s had those injuries, but he had them. He’s got to turn the page on that and with training camp starting, we’re anxious to see what he’s going to do,” says Vigneault. “(Making the club) is as tough for him as everybody else on the team. It’s what you do on the ice. He’s one of those guys that is on the bubble and depending on how he plays and how other guys play, some guys will make our team and other guys won’t.”
Rypien will try to do all the things he did in last year’s preseason to catch the eye of the coach, but he also realizes the Canucks are deeper now in terms of grinding forwards with the addition of players like Byron Ritchie and Brad Isbister to a list that already includes Matt Cooke, Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler
and Jeff Cowan. But Vigneault has stated a desire to make his team tougher for opponents to play against this season. And Rick Rypien can certainly make life difficult for any team he plays against.
“I think they’ve picked up quite a few guys who can do that (play his style). So it’s going to be a battle out there and that definitely helps out the team,” he says. “It works in my favour that Vigneault wants more grit, but it’s going to come down to who plays well at training camp and in the preseason.”
One change fans will notice about Rypien this season is the number he’ll wear. After sporting #15 and living under a black cloud last year, Rypien’s returning to his more familiar – and he’s hoping more fortunate -- #37. He’s gladly surrendering his old number to newcomer Byron Ritchie.
“Obviously, he’s been in the league for a while. So it’s not a problem him having 15. I wore 37 last year in the preseason, so it’s not an unfamiliar number for me. I like it, so I’ll stick with it,” Rypien explains. “I was kind of looking for a new number and a change, anyways, and I wore 37 last year, so it’ll be good.”
And hopefully for Rick Rypien and the Canucks so will his health – all season long. He’ll be a fun guy to watch on a nightly basis if he can keep all of his parts in working order.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at email@example.com