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NHL commissioner expects league to look at behavioural program after deaths

People with former Vancouver Canucks hockey player Rick Rypien's No. 37 written on their wrists gather around Felicia McKinnon while honoring Rypien outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday August 17, 2011. Rypien, who signed a one-year deal with the Winnipeg Jets in July, was found dead at his Alberta home on Monday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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People with former Vancouver Canucks hockey player Rick Rypien's No. 37 written on their wrists gather around Felicia McKinnon while honoring Rypien outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday August 17, 2011. Rypien, who signed a one-year deal with the Winnipeg Jets in July, was found dead at his Alberta home on Monday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

TORONTO - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman expects the league to review its substance abuse and behavioural health program following the death of two players over the summer.

Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien and New York Rangers tough guy Derek Boogaard both spent time in the program, which is run in conjunction with the NHL Players' Association.

"My guess is we'll talk at the appropriate time with the players' association, making sure that we're comfortable with all of the mechanisms and programs we have in place, which are extensive," Bettman told The Canadian Press at the league's research and development camp on Wednesday. "I don't think any sports league does more than we do but maybe there's more, as we focus on it, that we need to focus on. I know it's always hard for people to accept, but sports is a microcosm of society in general.

"And life isn't always easy."

Rypien died Monday at his off-season home in Crowsnest Pass, Alta., where an RCMP official said a call was answered for a "sudden and non-suspicious" death. He was 27.

Boogaard died at age 28 in May due to an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone.

While referring to the NHL-NHLPA support program as "very strong," union executive Mathieu Schneider indicated that he shares Bettman's desire to look closely at ways it might be improved.

"I think there certainly has to be some work done in addressing issues," said Schneider, the NHLPA's special adviser to executive director Don Fehr. "If anything could have been done that would have helped those players, if anything can be done to help future players, we certainly need to do it."

In an effort to protect the privacy of those involved in the program, both the league and union are reluctant to divulge specific details about how it functions.

Schneider played more than 1,200 career NHL games and says every player is aware of the kind of services that are available. Among those are a 24-hour help line, as well as access to counsellors and other medical professionals, if needed.

He was briefly a teammate of Rypien's in Vancouver during the 2009-10 season and believes one challenge the sport faces is a general reluctance for players to discuss personal issues with their peers.

"Maybe it would have been better had Rick been able to lean on some teammates and guys there for support," said Schneider. "But those type of things have always been kind of taboo. You just don't talk about it."

Rypien twice took a leave of absence during his six seasons with the Canucks organization to deal with personal issues. Shortly after Boogaard's death, the New York Post reported he had been receiving counselling through the NHL-NHLPA program.

The death of both players has made it a difficult summer for the league.

"It's tragic, it's sad," said Bettman. "Both instances, while they're different in terms of what happened and why, they're still tragedies any time you lose young people in the prime of life.

"It's just a horrible tragedy."

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