WARROAD, Minn. — On a frigid Wednesday afternoon in early January, with a cold sun shining down on the northern Minnesota border towns, Craig Heisinger was among a capacity audience that filled the gymnasium at Warroad High School. His reason for being there was all too familiar and sad — to say goodbye to a promising young man, gone far too soon as a result of suicide.

Called “Zinger” by all who know him, Heisinger is the assistant general manager for the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, and has been a friend of Warroad girls hockey coach David “Izzy” Marvin since the latter had a tryout with the first incarnation of the Jets in 1991. Last winter, a few days after Christmas, Marvin’s 19-year-old son, Max, was found dead in his bedroom, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot. Max’s prized deer hunting rifle was at his side.

Barely eight months after that tragedy, the Marvin family, with Heisinger’s help, are working to draw a positive future from past tragedy. The Max Foundation, which aims to work with children from a young age on self esteem and suicide prevention efforts, was formally launched this week.

Project 11, Rick Rypien

Max’s death hit home for Heisinger, and not just due to his friendship with the Marvins.

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In 2013, Heisinger helped start Project 11, a similar suicide education and prevention effort based in Winnipeg. The “11” comes from the number worn by Rick Rypien, a forward for the Vancouver Canucks and the Winnipeg-based Manitoba Moose, who had a public battle with depression and took his own life at age 27, shortly after signing a contract with the Jets in the summer of 2011.

After Max was laid to rest, his father reached out to family, and to friends like Heisinger, for ideas on how to find something positive in their loss.

“Izzy was looking for some way to create a legacy for Max, just like I had been looking for a way to create a legacy for my friend, Rick,” Heisinger said, noting that an increased willingness to discuss suicide is encouraging. “We’d like to do whatever we can to help.

"The stigma is slowly being removed. People are talking about it more, and there’s an opportunity to help people. In the situation with Max, much like our situation with Rick, there’s an opportunity to create a silver lining to the life of the person that’s gone.”

At the start of the current school year, some of the programs fostered by Project 11 were incorporated into the Warroad schools, beginning as early as kindergarten.

“This really ties so nicely into things we are doing, activities to promote mental health awareness and positive coping skills for our young learners,” said Brita Comstock, Warroad’s elementary school principal.

Programs made possible by the Max Foundation provide lessons in friendship and character development for the youngest students, and progress up to fifth- and sixth-graders, who learn how to communicate feelings and self-reflection.

“It starts with health and wellness, and making sure our students understand that relationships are key, not only with their peers but with a caring adult that they can go to in times of need,” Comstock said.

It is seen as a vital effort in communities like Warroad, as national studies show suicide becoming more prevalent in America, with the most pronounced increases in rural areas. In the past two years, the region’s hockey community has been rocked by the suicides of former Minnesota Duluth captain Andrew Carroll in January 2018 and retired NHL and North Dakota star Greg Johnson in July.

“In talking to teachers, they have all been looking for something like this, because there’s such a need,” said Izzy Marvin, admitting that the past eight months have often been very difficult for his family. “If we can help one person from going through what we, and so many others, are going through, it will help us.”

Starting a foundation

In the darkest days after the funeral, Izzy and his wife, Kallie, reached out to Conway Marvin, a relative and local business owner with much experience on foundations, and to Heisinger for help. In conjunction with the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundations, Conway has helped with things like creating a website, setting up social media channels, contributing financially, gathering support from other potential donors, and establishing a mission statement: “Live your best life.”

“There’s always got to be some good that comes from these kinds of tragedies,” said Heisinger, who was in Warroad this week to speak at the formal launch of the foundation, talking with community members about the importance of their efforts. “Certainly the Marvin family can make a difference by doing this and honoring Max’s legacy.”

Initially, the results have been encouraging.

“Max and Rick shared many of the same endearing qualities. They were both quiet, humble leaders, loved by their teammates, family and friends,” wrote Jets owner Mark Chipman, in a statement of support. He and Izzy Marvin have been friends since their daughters were hockey teammates at the University of North Dakota. “We are proud that Project 11 and Rick’s legacy can be shared in honor of Max’s incredible life and the impact he had on so many.”

The next goal is sustainability, and the Marvins say that fundraising efforts will be a part of their future plans. In the nearer term, they take some pride in seeing the foundation positively influencing the school curriculum and reaching out to kids less than a year since Max's death.

“We’ve been told it’s therapeutic for us, but we’re certainly not doing it for that reason,” said Izzy Marvin, who in the midst of their family tragedy coached Warroad’s girls to a runner-up finish in the state tournament last season. “It’s therapeutic for me to go fishing or to coach hockey, too. It will be therapeutic for me if I know we’ve helped someone. If we can make a difference for one person, it will be worth it.”

More information on the Max Foundation can be found at www.maxmarvinfoundation.org, on Twitter at @maxfoundation5 and on Instagram at @themaxfoundation5.