Beyond the Superman Punches, Kevin Bieksa helping fight stigma of mental illness

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 12, 2017

There's joy to Anaheim Ducks defenseman Kevin Bieksa.

It's in talking about his family: His wife, Katie, and two children, Cole and Reese. It's in talking about his team, which has remained in the Western Conference playoff hunt despite a devastating series of injuries to key players. And sometimes, it's in the way Bieksa, 36, brings joy to others through unorthodox means: Like getting a rise out of the crowd with a "Superman Punch" in a fight that goes viral; or getting a rise out of his teammates by donning a disguise and making them an unwitting co-star in a comedy video.

There's pain to Anaheim Ducks defenseman Kevin Bieksa, too.

In August 2011, Bieksa lost his close friend and teammate Rick Rypien, 27, to suicide. Rypien played six seasons with Bieksa with the Vancouver Canucks, and suffered from clinical depression. Bieksa and his family took Rypien into their home, and did what they could to help him. After Rypien's death, Bieska dedicated himself to helping others with depression, working with organizations such as and the NHLPA-led program Hockey Talks.

"Depression is very common. Don't look down on them. It's a disease, and it's something that requires help and attention," Bieksa told ESPN on Sunday. "We're trying to get that one point across: It's a disease. People suffering from it have to speak up. If they don't, sometimes the consequences aren't good."

We spoke with Bieksa about Rypien, and his work to combat mental illness. But first, some thoughts from the defenseman about the Ducks, advanced stats, the Golden Knights, dressing up like a security guard to fool his teammates, and a topic that frankly he didn't want to talk about: Those Superman Punches.

ESPN: When we were setting this up, the Ducks mentioned that you didn't want to go into detail on your "Superman Punch" fight moments that have gone viral this season. That you felt it was "disrespectful." I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

BIEKSA: I'm someone who never celebrates after a fight. There are guys in the league that throw their hands up and wave to the stands and do all that stuff. I've never been a guy that's done that, ever. I don't believe in it. When you fight someone else, there's a mutual respect there. You don't show them up afterward. You understand that it's bare-knuckle fighting, and that all it takes is one punch either way to end a fight.

It's almost like you're fortunate after the fight if you did get the better of the guy. You should be happy about that. Skate to the box. Sit down. Respect the other opponent.

I've obviously gotten a little bit of attention lately, but fighting's tough. I haven't won every fight I've been in. I've taken shots. Hard shots, that have left damage. It's a respect thing.

Here's the two Bieksa superman KO's side by side. #NHLDucks

- Shayne Pasquino (@shaynepasquino) November 26, 2017

ESPN: So does it make you uncomfortable when video of your knockouts go as viral as they have?

BIEKSA: No, no! It doesn't make me feel uncomfortable at all. Obviously, I like fighting. I enjoy fighting. I want to win. Let's not get that confused -- I want to win the fight. But I don't want any lasting, long-term effects for the guy. I don't want him to be injured for a while.

For me, it's about talking about it. Sure, watch it, show it, whatever. But talking about it, to me, is disrespectful.

ESPN: Speaking of viral videos: The one where you pretended to be a security guard at the Honda Center is one of the greatest pieces of hockey comedy in recent memory.

BIEKSA: It was fun. That's the whole point: To keep it lighthearted, to poke fun at each other. Fortunately or unfortunately, I'm kinda good at those things. So they allowed me to do my thing. They didn't give me a script. They just had me wing it, do what felt appropriate. I had a few things in my head before we started, but I knew I had to kinda feel out who the person was and what their reaction was going to be, and what kind of mood they're in.

Last year, he was Shovel Boy. This year, it's @HondaCenter security.@KBieksa3 is back in disguise in the award-winning Undercover Duck.

- Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) November 9, 2017

It's funny. I get that video mentioned to me by a lot of the linesmen and referees. They all thought it was hilarious. So did security officers at other arenas. It's gotten around.

There were a few funny bits that didn't make the video because they were inappropriate.

ESPN: Was one of the inappropriate bits when you were underneath Ryan Getzlaf like you were checking his oil?

BIEKSA: [Laughs] No, that was very appropriate. No, it was Corey Perry. I had an inappropriate conversation with him. Not too bad. But it didn't quite make the cut.

ESPN: Speaking of Getzlaf, who just returned to your lineup: You guys have had some incredibly bad injury luck this season, yet are right on the wild-card bubble. How have you overcome them?

BIEKSA: Just the fighting mentality. We have a lot of battlers on this team. And yeah, we've been missing our top two centers for almost the whole year, but we're a deep team. We have a lot of guys that step up, play big minutes, play different roles. We stay together. We don't come undone at the seams.

It hasn't been smoothing sailing. We've had some overtime losses. OK, we've had a lot of overtime losses. But we just keep coming back to work. It's a good group of guys. That's an overused term in hockey, but this really is. We don't get down on each other. We don't point fingers.

ESPN: How much of this resiliency comes from your coach, Randy Carlyle?

BIEKSA: I think there's a good pulse in the room. The coach is there to coach. He can say whatever he wants. But at the end of the day, it's about the players that are in the room. The players have mostly been the ones that are keeping things together. We've got a good leadership group that has kept things on the straight and narrow.

ESPN: While we're on the Western Conference, what's your take on the Golden Knights? How is Vegas possibly this good?

BIEKSA: Impressive. Until we played them, we were thinking this was a beginners' luck kind of thing. And then after playing them -- they've got a good team. They play hard. I got a lot of friends on that team. They're well-coached, and they like their coach. They all think he's got a really good pulse of that team, and they're playing with a ton of confidence. That's maybe one of the major things you notice: The confidence with which they play. Everyone jumps into the rush from the point. They're encouraged to make plays.

And there's an amazing atmosphere in that arena. One of the best arenas in the league right now, if not the best. I know that's a big statement, but it's true.

ESPN: What's your take on advanced stats, and the way they're used by fans and media to evaluate players today? The Ducks are currently last in possession at five-on-five, for example. How do you feel about these analytics being used to justify an argument about a player or a team?

BIEKSA: I just feel like numbers can be manipulated, in a good way or a bad way. If you wanna find a good stat for somebody that's winning a lot of games, for what's behind it, then you can find it. You can also find bad numbers for teams that aren't winning. They're great to have, it's a good way of looking at things, but I don't think you can use them as the be-all, end-all.

ESPN: All right, completely switching gears, one of the reasons I wanted to speak with you was about the tremendous work you're doing on mental illness and depression after the death of Rick Rypien. In reading about your relationship with him, and the impact he had on you and your family, there's some incredibly touching stuff. Like, for example, how your son would sometimes be the only one that could get through to him in his darkest times.

BIEKSA: Rick was a close friend, for a long time. What anyone would do is try to help their friend. So I told him that I wanted him to live with his. To always have someone around for him, if he needed to talk. My wife could keep an eye on him, and take away some of the little stresses that he had, like doing his laundry and making dinner.

That wasn't going to cure him. So when he would be locked up in his spare room for days at a time, and he wouldn't come out, we'd try to continue to feed him. So we'd send Cole, who might have been 20 months at the time, with a tray of food. And he's always open the door for Cole, give him a little smile. Cole would poke his head in there. He was just learning how to talk. So that's one of the tools we used to get food in there to him.

ESPN: What did you learn about mental illness in working with Rick, both before and after his death?

BIEKSA: That it's still one of those things where people really don't want to talk about it. Everyone knows someone that has a mental illness, but most of the people that do suffer don't talk about, so there isn't a lot of education being spread around. I had a few people in my life where I dealt with it, but I wasn't very educated about it. So I had to do that with Rick. I wish I would have known more. I'm still learning about it. But the people who suffer from the disease tell me that you can't really understand how they're feeling if you don't suffer from it. It's something you can't figure out on your own. So you try to be there for them.

With Rick, we stayed up with him. ... Honestly, I can think of 20 times off the top of my head where we stayed up with him until 5 in the morning, just listening to him divulge how he was feeling. We just did that over and over, and thought that would help him.

ESPN: How prevalent is depression in the NHL?

BIEKSA: We're starting to talk about it a little bit more with our health meetings. But it's still something that remains taboo. It remains a weakness, and no one wants to show weakness, because coaches and general managers preach mental toughness. The last thing you want to do is be known as a guy who has mental illness or is depressed or has high anxiety. And there are certainly players with extremely high levels of anxiety, and even depression. But they fear opening up about that, because they fear the consequences. So that's what we're trying to take away. The stigma.

Part of that is educating a lot of these older, old-fashioned people who don't really believe in that sort of thing. You have to educate them first, before getting anyone to open up.

ESPN: It's a hockey culture problem. Does it also lead to problems with self-medication?

BIEKSA: Oh yeah, absolutely. Because people are trying to figure it out on their own. And there are people with experience, people that know doctors that can give you better tools to deal with it. Handling things on your own isn't always the best solution. You wouldn't handle a torn MCL on your own, right? You would go to a professional. It's the same kind of thing.