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Jets' assistant GM formed bond with Rypien

by Patrick Williams /
WINNIPEG -- Rick Rypien made his biggest impression with the Vancouver Canucks, but he also leaves behind a legacy in Winnipeg.

Rypien, whose sudden passing at age 27 stunned the hockey world on Monday night, signed last month with the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg offered a place of comfort and familiarity to Rypien, who had spent parts of five seasons as a Canucks farmhand with the American League's Manitoba Moose.

The scrappy center maintained a close circle of friends that included Craig Heisinger, Winnipeg senior vice president and director of hockey operations/assistant general manager. Heisinger, previously the general manager of the Moose, gave the undrafted product of the Western League's Regina Pats his first professional opportunity.

"He was a real good guy," Heisinger said of Rypien. "He was a safe, simple guy. He barely had a bank account."

Much like both men, the Rypien-Heisinger friendship had modest beginnings.

Winnipeg forward Rick Rypien, who signed with the Jets in the offseason after six years in the Vancouver organization, passed away on Monday at the age of 27. (Photo: Getty Images)

On Monday afternoon at the MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg, Heisinger recalled discovering Rypien with the Pats. The Brandon Wheat Kings had throttled the Pats, 7-2, but Rypien's rambunctious style caught Heisinger's eye.

"He was blocking shots the next day in practice. I remember going down to the [Regina] dressing room and saying, 'Tell me more about this guy.'"

Heisinger went on to offer Rypien a tryout deal with the Moose and brought the Alberta native aboard.

"There wasn't a long line [of suitors], and his agent couldn't say yes fast enough," Heisinger said.

Rypien did not cut an especially impressive presence, and then-Moose head coach Randy Carlyle needed some time to warm up to Rypien, according to Heisinger.

"He was 5-11, 160 pounds, and Randy was like, 'Where did you find this guy?' It was tough to get him into the lineup at first, but once he [got in], it was tough to get him out of the lineup."

Rypien would go on to establish himself as a dependable AHL player with the Moose before moving on to the Canucks.

Heisinger acknowledged that Rypien's personal issues stretched back several years. While cognizant of the problems that plagued Rypien, the Jets decided to sign Rypien on July 2. Heisinger was not the only fan Rypien had in the Winnipeg organization, either.

"Our pro scouts really liked Rick," Heisinger said.

Rypien took pride in his style of play. While a fight card that included bouts with the mammoth likes of Hal Gill and Boris Valabik earned Rypien considerable notice and a reputation as the NHL's best middleweight fighter, there was more to his game. Heisinger praised Rypien's skating and work ethic that he brought as an energy player to the Moose lineup.

"It was tough to get him into the lineup at first, but once he [got in], it was tough to get him out of the lineup." -- Jets Assistant GM Craig Heisinger
"He had a lot of confidence in his game. He expected a lot of himself. He did love being the style of player he was," Heisinger said.

Rypien had been expected to arrive in Winnipeg on Sunday evening for an MRI on his knee, and had contacted Heisinger regarding whether there would be ice available for training. Heisinger, returning from a trip to Europe, missed Rypien's message and was not able to make contact with him.

"I think he had a fantastic summer," Heisinger said. "He seemed really excited to be back here. I think it was a comfort zone for him. He had an apartment all set up. He was ready to go.

"I thought, for sure, that he had made strides. And I still believe that."

Given the progress Rypien had seemingly made, his passing caught Heisinger by surprise.

"I think he gave a lot more back to us than we gave him," Heisinger said. "I'm going to miss lots about him."
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