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By: John Fabiano, RulingSports.com Intern (Twitter: @Fabs5180)
October 8, 2012
Tragedy struck the NHL last year when 28-year-old power forward Derek Boogaard was found dead due to an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers. The “Boogyman” was one of the most feared enforcers in the league and injuries sustained from fights reportedly contributed to his depression and analgesic drug addiction.
Boogaard played for the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers, and as a member of both teams he was checked into the NHL’s drug rehabilitation center in Southern California. His drug addiction was well documented, but doctors from both teams allegedly continued to write him prescriptions for painkillers, antidepressants, and sleep medications.
When he died, Boogaard had $4.8 million remaining on his NHL contract. His parents, working with the NHLPA, had the intention of filing a grievance against the Rangers to receive the unpaid portion of the contract after the team informed them that the contract was void upon Derek’s death. The basis of the grievance was that the Rangers contributed to his death by allegedly overprescribing him medication when they were well aware of his struggles with addiction.
Roman Stoykewych was the NHLPA union representative who educated the Boogaards’ about their rights in regards to compensation from Derek’s contract. He sought medical records from Minnesota and New York team doctors but had trouble obtaining the documents. According to the Boogaard’s lawsuit, it was not until after the deadline to file the grievance passed that Stoykewych informed the Boogaards that the filing would have been futile because it was obvious that the Rangers were not going to honor the remainder of Derek’s contract.
The Boogaards have now filed a lawsuit against the NHLPA alleging that the union failed them in their attempt to file the grievance. Not only is the lawsuit seeking the $4.8 million that remained on Derek’s contract, but also $5 million in punitive damages. The union has 30 days to officially respond to the suit, but has already stated, “[W]e are confident that there is no meritorious claim that can be made against the NHLPA in regard to Derek’s tragic death.”
Whether the Boogaards will be able to recover any of this money is yet to be seen, but if it goes forward, if depositions reveal that team doctors were prescribing painkillers to a known drug addict, tremendous speculation about the league’s concern for its players’ safety would be raised.
Shortly after Boogaard’s death, two other NHL enforcers, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak both died from apparent suicides. Similar to Boogaard, both suffered from severe depression, possibly caused by the repeated blows to the head NHL enforcers receive each time they fight. After his death, Boogaard’s brain was donated to the Sports Legacy Institute, which studies the brains of dead athletes who competed in high contact sports. It was found that he suffered from the degenerative brain condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which has been found in many NFL players that suffered numerous concussions throughout their careers.
The NFL is currently facing lawsuits from thousands of former players claiming that the league acted negligently and concealed information linking concussions to long-term mental health affects. Similarly to the NFL, the NHL could find itself facing a bevy of lawsuits in the future. Fighting, concussions, and medications have always been a part of the game of hockey, and former players may soon realize that they have a cause of action against a league that put their mental health at risk.
Almost all of the NHL’s current media attention is focused on the lockout, so there has not been much attention given to the Boogaards’ lawsuit against the NHLPA. Once that dust settles, it will be interesting to see if the outcome of this lawsuit encourages former players, especially enforcers, to bring similar suits against the league.
Concussion and player safety concerns have changed the culture of the NFL. Big hits that went unpenalized not too long ago are now warranting fines and suspensions. The dangerous physical aspect of the NHL could cause the league to head in a similar direction, and it’s not completely out of the question that the league could ban fighting in its attempt to protect player safety and avoid damaging lawsuits.’
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Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer
Derek Boogaard: A Brain ‘Going Bad’
New York Times
By JOHN BRANCH
Published: December 5, 2011
THROUGH THE NIGHT and into the next day, as the scrolls across the bottom of television screens spread the news of Derek Boogaard’s death last May, the calls of condolences came, one after another.
Among them was a call from a stranger, first to Joanne Boogaard in Regina, Saskatchewan, then to Len Boogaard in Ottawa. It was a researcher asking for the brain of their son.
An examination of the brain could unlock answers to Boogaard’s life and death. It could save other lives. But there was not much time to make a decision. Boogaard, the N.H.L.’s fiercest fighter, dead of a drug and alcohol overdose at 28, was going to be cremated.
There was little discussion.
The brain was carved out of his skull by a coroner in Minneapolis. It was placed in a plastic bucket and inside a series of plastic bags, then put in a cooler filled with a slurry of icy water. It was driven to the airport and placed in the cargo hold of a plane to Boston.
When it arrived at a laboratory at the Bedford V.A. Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., the brain was vibrantly pink and weighed 1,580 grams, or about 3 ½ pounds. On a stainless-steel table in the basement morgue, Dr. Ann McKee cleaved it in half, front to back, with a large knife. Much of one half was sliced into sheets about the width of sandwich bread.
The pieces of Boogaard’s brain were labeled as SLI-76. They were placed into large, deli-style refrigerators with glass doors, next to dozens of other brains.
The Boogaard family waited for results. One month. Two. Three. Two other N.H.L. enforcers died, reportedly suicides, stoking a debate about the toll of their role in hockey.
Four months. Five. The news came in a conference call to the family in October.
Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as C.T.E., a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease. It is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It can be diagnosed only posthumously, but scientists say it shows itself in symptoms like memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, even addiction.
More than 20 dead former N.F.L. players and many boxers have had C.T.E. diagnosed. It generally hollowed out the final years of their lives into something unrecognizable to loved ones.
And now, the fourth hockey player, of four examined, was found to have had it, too.
But this was different. The others were not in their 20s, not in the prime of their careers.
The scientists on the far end of the conference call told the Boogaard family that they were shocked to see so much damage in someone so young. It appeared to be spreading through his brain. Had Derek Boogaard lived, they said, his condition likely would have worsened into middle-age dementia.
And that was when Len Boogaard’s own mind went numb.
Rehab, Pills and a New Team
The Minnesota Wild prepared for the start of the 2009-10 season. Derek Boogaard watched from a distance.
The team said that Boogaard, the pre-eminent enforcer in the N.H.L. and a hugely popular Wild player, was sitting out a few weeks because of a concussion. Instead, he was at the Canyon treatment center in Malibu, Calif., being treated for addiction to prescription drugs.
Boogaard was embarrassed and worried that news of his addiction would shatter his reputation. He was also concerned that someone would take his role. From rehabilitation, he tracked the preseason fights of teammates and texted friends to gauge how badly he was missed.
He rejoined the team after missing the first five regular-season games and had his first fight on Oct. 21, at home against the Colorado Avalanche’s David Koci. Boogaard started with a left-hand jab to Koci’s chin, then grabbed Koci’s jersey and knocked him down with two right-hand punches.
Boogaard skated, expressionless, to the penalty box.
From the outside, everything seemed normal. It was not.
“His demeanor, his personality, it just left him,” John Scott, a Wild teammate, said. “He didn’t have a personality anymore. He just was kind of — a blank face.”
Boogaard fell asleep while playing cards on the team plane, a teammate said. He passed out in corners of the team’s dressing room. He was uncharacteristically late for meetings and workouts. Wild trainers and doctors warned Boogaard’s teammates not to give him their prescription pills.
In one three-month stretch of the 2008-9 season with the Wild, Boogaard received at least 11 prescriptions for painkillers from eight doctors — including at least one doctor for a different team, according to records gathered by his father, Len Boogaard. Combined, the prescriptions were for 370 tablets of painkillers containing hydrocodone, typically sold under brand names like Vicodin.
Derek Boogaard increasingly wanted more pills. He became adept at getting them.
In downtown Minneapolis, Boogaard’s favorite hangout was Sneaky Pete’s, a sports bar that becomes a raucous club on weekend nights. Stripper poles are erected on the dance floor, and a throbbing beat escapes beyond the velvet rope out front. Boogaard was a regular.
Young men fueled with alcohol begged Boogaard to punch them, so they could say they survived a shot from the Boogeyman. People bought him drinks. They took pictures of him and with him. They chanted his name. When the attention got overbearing, Boogaard escaped behind the bar, where his bobblehead likeness sat on a shelf.
“He was like Norm in ‘Cheers,’ ” said Stewart Hafiz, whose family owns the bar.
And Boogaard often bought painkillers, thousands of dollars’ worth at a time, from someone he knew there, according to Boogaard’s brother Aaron.
He gobbled the pills by the handful — eight or more OxyContins at a time, multiple people said, at a cost of around $60 each — chewing them to hasten their time-release effect. The line between needing drugs for pain and wanting them for celebration blurred.
“I didn’t trust him to have that amount on him,” said Aaron Boogaard, who lived with Derek in summer off-seasons. “He knew it, too, so he would give them to me to hold, and I would hide them around the place, and he’d come to me when his back was hurt — or whatever was hurting him.”
“What was I going to do?” he added.
Wild coaches saw the decline for a couple of seasons. Boogaard’s admirable work ethic had faded, and no one could pinpoint why.
“I just said to him one day: ‘What’s up? What’s up with you? Where is the guy I know?’ ” said Matt Shaw, who coached Boogaard as an assistant with the minor league Houston Aeros and, later, with the Wild. “Because he was not himself. And he didn’t have an answer. He didn’t want to look me in the eye.”
Boogaard had been drafted by the Wild in 2001, a seventh-round pick given little chance of making the N.H.L. The Wild shepherded him through three seasons in the minor leagues and molded him into the most fearsome player in hockey. They saw how his gentle humility blossomed into fearless swagger. They felt how the game changed when he strode onto the ice.
But by the 2009-10 season, Boogaard was 27, and his body carried a lot of mileage. He missed the start of the season while in rehabilitation, and his contract was to expire at season’s end. He played 57 games, and had no goals and nine fights.
The Wild quietly dangled him as trade bait, then made a half-hearted attempt to re-sign him for about $1 million a year.
There were plenty of other suitors. The New York Rangers and the Edmonton Oilers each offered four-year contracts paying more than $1.5 million a season.
Boogaard’s family wanted Edmonton. It was familiar and close to home in western Canada.
He chose New York. He signed a four-year, $6.5 million contract — a rather ordinary salary among his new Rangers teammates, but striking among the fraternity of enforcers who play only a few minutes a game.
“It’s one of the great cities to be at and you’re always on center stage when you’re out there, so I’m excited,” Boogaard told The Star Tribune of Minneapolis the night he signed.
The Rangers knew about Boogaard’s substance-abuse problem and time in rehabilitation, family members said. The team surely knew of his concussions and myriad other injuries.
But any concern the Rangers had was outweighed by their eagerness for his brand of toughness and intimidation. They needed an enforcer, and they wanted the best.
Boogaard had played 21 games for the Rangers when he took the ice in Ottawa on Dec. 9, 2010. After leveling an opponent with a legal check, Boogaard was chased by Matt Carkner, a 30-year-old enforcer who had spent most of his career patrolling the minor leagues.
The two bickered as they glided across center ice. They barely stopped before Carkner cracked Boogaard’s face with a right hand.
Boogaard usually responded to such shots with an angry flurry. This time, he turned his head away and held on to Carkner. He did not throw another punch.
All fall, Boogaard’s family and friends had noticed an indifference in his fighting. Boogaard was listed at 260 pounds, but weighed nearly 300 when he joined the Rangers. Team officials expressed concern about his effectiveness on the ice, even his safety in a fight, his agent said.
Days later, the Madison Square Garden crowd chanted Boogaard’s name as he pounded Edmonton’s Steve MacIntyre. During a rematch minutes later, few noticed a MacIntyre jab that broke Boogaard’s nose and most likely gave him a concussion. Boogaard missed one game and played the next.
Then came Carkner. He lifted Boogaard and slammed him down. Boogaard landed on his right shoulder. The back of his head struck the ice. He rose slowly and went to the locker room.
“I noticed he kind of stopped fighting and I took him down and landed on top,” Carkner told reporters. “Obviously, if you land a punch on a guy like that it feels good. It feels good to take down a big man like that.”
The Rangers said Boogaard was out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. Ten days later, they revealed he was having headaches.
When Len Boogaard arrived in New York from Ottawa in January, he barely recognized his son. Several times over several days, the toughest man in hockey bawled in his arms.
“I had to hold him,” Len Boogaard said of Derek. “It was like when he was younger, when he was a little kid growing up. He just sobbed away uncontrollably.”
For weeks, Boogaard mostly shuttered himself inside his $7,000-a-month apartment on the 33rd floor of the Sheffield, on 57th Street near Columbus Circle in Manhattan. The view of Central Park was obscured by the blinds Boogaard kept closed.
The Rangers told him to avoid the rink because the commute, the movement, even watching hockey could bring nausea. The team delivered a healthy meal to his door every afternoon, but Boogaard usually threw it away. His kitchen counter overflowed with fast-food packages.
The fog of Boogaard’s postconcussion syndrome slid into a hazy shade of loneliness. Early in the season, a stream of friends had gone to New York to see him play and take in the sights.
But with Boogaard out of the lineup, the number of visitors waned. Boogaard grew desperate for company. His January cellphone bill needed 167 pages to detail calls and text messages, some to people who had not heard from him in years. February’s bill consumed 222 pages. It listed 13,724 text messages.
Those who went to New York noticed his memory lapses were growing worse. Boogaard joked about them, saying he had been hit on the head too many times. But they also came to worry about his darkening personality and impulsive behavior. His characteristic sweetness and easy manner, his endearing eagerness to please, had evaporated.
Friends said Boogaard was at turns manic and sullen. He went days without showering. He made grand and scattered plans. He talked about buying land in British Columbia and building one big house for himself and cabins for family members. He spent thousands on night-vision goggles, hundreds on walkie-talkies, and $150 on candy at a Duane Reade drugstore.
Len Boogaard, knowing that his son had been enrolled in a substance-abuse program since September 2009, was surprised to see so many prescription bottles in the bathroom with the names of Rangers doctors. He was also surprised to hear from his son that he had been given four days’ notice for his next drug test.
Len Boogaard played a DVD of family photos and home movies. He reminded his son of everything he went through to reach New York — the family moves, the bullying, the naysayers of youth hockey, the struggles through juniors and the minor leagues.
Boogaard cried, and his father held him.
Few knew that Derek, usually on Sunday evenings, carried thousands of dollars in cash and drove his Audi to Huntington, Long Island. He met a man in a parking lot there and bought Ziploc bags full of painkillers, according to Boogaard’s best friend in New York, Devin Wilson.
Boogaard sorted the pills into pastel-colored plastic Easter eggs, which he stashed around his apartment, a one-man game of hide and seek. He carried one in a pocket whenever he left, the contents adjusted for how long he expected to be gone.
“You could tell he didn’t trust himself,” said Wilson, a teammate when they were teenagers who stayed with Boogaard many weekends last spring.
By March, Boogaard resumed light workouts with the Rangers, whose doctors continued to supply him with prescription drugs. Mark Messier, the team’s Stanley Cup hero in 1994 and now a team executive, tried to motivate him with a pep talk.
A day or two later, a noodle-legged Boogaard fell during on-ice workouts. The Rangers recognized the symptoms.
It was early April, the last week of the regular season, and Boogaard was on his way back to drug rehabilitation in California.
Friends thought he was vacationing. He called and texted from his cellphone and ate in nice restaurants. After a couple of weeks, granted a recess from rehabilitation, he flew to New York and drove his car to Minneapolis. He dropped off more pills at his apartment and returned to rehabilitation in Los Angeles.
Boogaard rented a Porsche for $5,000 and spent $1,200 on one dinner that week, part of $32,000 he put on his Visa card over two weeks. Aaron Boogaard, four years younger, joined him in Los Angeles and stayed at a nearby hotel. The brothers exercised and boxed at a gym. They went to the beach every day.
“There’d be meetings going on and things like that, and he wouldn’t really be doing anything,” Aaron Boogaard said. “I’d try to say: ‘Dude, shouldn’t you be doing that stuff? I think everybody else here is doing it. Why don’t you?’ ”
Boogaard was under the guidance of the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, financed jointly by the N.H.L. and its players union. They would not make the co-directors — David Lewis, a psychiatrist, and Brian Shaw, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto — available for comment.
Cassidy Cousens, the founder and program administrator of the Authentic Recovery Center in Los Angeles, where Boogaard was assigned, would not discuss his case. Cousens said that patients generally go through a detoxification program and are subjected to random drug tests several times a week. Some are allowed to leave the grounds with an approved escort — a staff member for the first few weeks, a friend or a family member after.
“It might look odd to someone outside,” Cousens said. “But integrity is not lacking on the ground.”
On Thursday, May 12, about a month into his rehabilitation, Boogaard was granted a second extended recess. He left with Aaron to attend the graduation of their sister, Krysten, from the University of Kansas. The plan was to meet up with their other brother, Ryan, in Minneapolis for a few days first.
That morning, Derek Boogaard sent a message from the airport in Los Angeles to Wilson in New York. There was a picture of a drink in his hand.
“Bloody Mary No. 6,” Boogaard wrote. “And we haven’t even left the ground yet.”
‘His Chest Wasn’t Moving’
The night of May 12 began with a painkiller, a 30-milligram Percocet that Aaron Boogaard later told the police he handed his brother at their two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. Derek, hours out of rehabilitation, was bent on a party.
He wore dark jeans, a blue-and-white checkered shirt and Pumas. He had dinner with friends at a steak-and-sushi place, where he drank Jack Daniel’s and Cokes. The group shuffled among Sneaky Pete’s and three other downtown Minneapolis bars. At some point, or several points, Derek fueled the buzz with more prescription painkillers.
Once home in his second-floor apartment on North First Street, he spent time in the bathroom. He went to his bedroom at the end of the hall.
Friends left. It was after 3 a.m. Aaron made pancakes in the kitchen. Derek called him back to the bedroom four or five times. Sitting at the end of the bed, he babbled and said the bed was spinning.
“He was miserable,” Aaron said.
Eventually, the calls from the bedroom stopped.
Asleep at last, Aaron thought. He left to spend what remained of the night at a girlfriend’s place. He returned at about 3 p.m. to shower and change. He poked his head into Derek’s room. Still in bed. He shouted that he was leaving for the airport to get their brother Ryan and left again.
Nearly three hours later, Ryan and Aaron arrived and stepped into the back bedroom, expecting to find their older brother sleeping off a hangover. It was about 6 p.m. on Friday, May 13.
“I looked and it didn’t look right,” Ryan said. “Like, his chest wasn’t moving.”
Derek Boogaard’s brothers stared at the giant body sprawled on the bed. On the dresser were framed photographs of their grandparents. There were pictures of former pets, including a bulldog named Trinity.
At the foot of the bed was a brown stain, where Derek had thrown up on the beige carpet.
“He was white,” Ryan said. Like his father, he is a police officer, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in rural Saskatchewan. “And I touched his arm and I knew right away because rigor mortis had already set in.”
Aaron began jumping up and down, screaming. Ryan told him to call 911, then took a couple of steps into the hallway and collapsed.
Lying on the floor, he called his father’s house in Ottawa. Len Boogaard’s wife, Jody, answered and heard nothing but unintelligible wails. She thought it was a prank call and nearly hung up. Finally, she made sense of the words contained in the screams.
Len was in the backyard. He grabbed the phone.
“I knew this was going to happen,” he cried.
The Hennepin County medical examiner ruled it an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone, the active ingredient in painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet.
“The coroner said with that mixture, he probably died as soon as he closed his eyes,” Aaron said.
Researchers’ ‘Wow’ Moment
It did not take long for Dr. Ann McKee to see the telltale brown spots near the outer surface of Boogaard’s brain — the road signs of C.T.E. She did not know much about Boogaard other than that he was a 28-year-old hockey player. And the damage was obvious.
“That surprised me,” she said.
A neuropathologist, McKee is one of four co-directors of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and the director of the center’s brain bank. She has examined nearly 80 brains of former athletes, mainly retired football players and boxers who spent their careers absorbing blows to the head. The center’s peer-reviewed findings of C.T.E. have been widely accepted by experts in the field. The National Football League, initially dismissive, has since donated money to help underwrite the research.
The group may now have its most sobering case: a young, high-profile athlete, dead in midcareer, with a surprisingly advanced degree of brain damage.
“To see this amount? That’s a ‘wow’ moment,” McKee said as she pointed to magnified images of Boogaard’s brain tissue. “This is all going bad.”
The degenerative disease was more advanced in Boogaard than it was in Bob Probert, a dominant enforcer of his generation, who played 16 N.H.L. seasons, struggled with alcohol and drug addictions and died of heart failure at age 45 in 2010.
In the past two years, C.T.E. was also diagnosed in the brains of two other former N.H.L. players: Reggie Fleming, 73, and Rick Martin, 59.
The condition of Boogaard’s brain, however, suggests the possibility that other current N.H.L. players have the disease, even if the symptoms have not surfaced.
The N.H.L. is not convinced that there is a link between hockey and C.T.E.
“There isn’t a lot of data, and the experts who we talked to, who consult with us, think that it’s way premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point,” N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Because we’re not sure that any, based on the data we have available, is valid.”
The researchers at Boston University say that C.T.E. is a nascent field of study, but that there is little debate that the disease is caused by repeated blows to the head. They said that the N.H.L. was not taking the research seriously.
“We don’t know why one person gets it more severely than another person, why one person has a course that is more quick than another person,” said Dr. Robert A. Stern, a neuropsychologist and a co-director for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. “But what we are pretty sure of is, once the disease starts, it continues to progress.”
Linking C.T.E. to Boogaard’s rapid descent in his final years is complicated by his drug addiction.
“He had problems with abuse the last couple years of his life, and that coincided with some of the cognitive and behavioral and mood changes,” Stern said. “What’s the chicken? What’s the egg?”
For years, the N.H.L. has tiptoed between the allure of its fast-paced, hard-hitting action and the need to protect star players. Its best player, Sidney Crosby, returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins last month after sitting out since January following two hits to the head, four days apart. Several star players in recent years have been forced to retire early because of postconcussion symptoms.
The N.H.L. formed a concussion-prevention program in 1997. In 2010, it banned blindside hits to the head. In March, the league altered its treatment protocol, requiring teams to examine all suspected concussions in a “quiet” room, away from the bench.
But the league has shown little interest in ending on-ice fighting. The message is decidedly mixed: outlaw an elbow to the head during play, but allow two combatants to stop the game and try to knock each other out with bare-knuckle punches to the head.
“If you polled our fans, probably more would say they think it’s a part of the game and should be retained,” Bettman said. He noted that fights were down slightly this season.
“The issue is, do we increase the penalty?” Bettman added, referring to the five-minute punishment typically handed to both fighters. “Because it is penalized now. And there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming appetite or desire to go in that direction at this point in time.”
Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler who is another co-director of the Boston University center, is the one who usually makes the initial call to a grieving family to request the brain. He does not want to put an end to hockey. He wants leagues to take every possible precaution to ensure that athletes are both better protected and better informed.
In October, Nowinski attended a Bruins game in Boston. There was a fight, and he watched quietly as thousands of people stood and cheered while the players fought.
“They are trading money for brain cells,” he said.
A Father Hunts for Answers
Len Boogaard, a cop and father, tries to make sense of it all. On leave from his desk job in Ottawa — a back injury years ago forced him off the streets — he patches together the remains of Derek’s world.
Like a detective, he dials contacts in Derek’s phone to ask who knows what. He explores hundreds of pages of phone records to reconstruct Derek’s relationships, his moods, his sleep patterns. He follows paper trails, trying to link the history of his son’s prescriptions to vague diagnoses in team medical reports.
Since the day of the funeral in May, Len Boogaard said, he has not heard from the Rangers.
The team refused to answer a detailed list of questions regarding their medical treatment of Boogaard during the season and his time in rehabilitation.
It also refused requests to speak to General Manager Glen Sather and the team physician, Dr. Andrew Feldman, among others, about Boogaard. Instead, it e-mailed a four-sentence statement from Sather that read, in part, “We worked very closely with Derek on and off the ice to provide him with the very best possible care.”
Boogaard’s death took on added weight when, in August, two other N.H.L. enforcers were found dead. Rick Rypien, 27, reportedly committed suicide after years of depression. Wade Belak, 35 and recently retired, reportedly hanged himself 16 days later. (The family has said it was an accident.)
Each bit of news, packed with a wallop, provided a backdrop for further debate about the role of fighting and the toll on enforcers. So did the start of the N.H.L. season in October, as teams began the ritual of glossy video tributes and moments of silence. The eccentric former coach and current television commentator Don Cherry chastised former enforcers who second-guess their past roles as “pukes,” “turncoats” and “hypocrites,” and the debate flared.
Arguments enveloped Canada, in particular, where culture and tradition have collided with tragedy. No one quite knows what to make of it.
In Minnesota two Sundays ago, the Wild honored Boogaard with a pregame tribute. The team sold Boogaard jerseys, T-shirts and autographed memorabilia that it had stored from two seasons ago. Fans crowded the team store. Some proceeds went to Boogaard’s favorite charity.
Boogaard’s parents and siblings were escorted onto the ice and presented with flowers, a painting of Derek and a framed game-worn jersey of his. The arena was darkened. A 4-minute-45-second tribute was shown on the video boards.
The Wild had drafted Boogaard in 2001, groomed him to fight and paid him several million dollars over five seasons to be the N.H.L.’s top enforcer. He punched his way to local adoration and leaguewide fear and respect.
The tribute showed Boogaard running over opponents, smiling with fans and talking to children. It showed each of the three N.H.L. goals he scored.
It did not show a single punch.
The Wild would not answer questions about the video. They also refused to address specific questions about Boogaard’s medical care, concussions, addiction and rehabilitation, or the availability of drugs through team doctors. Requests to speak with General Manager Chuck Fletcher and the medical director, Dr. Sheldon Burns, were refused.
For those who knew Derek Boogaard, there are questions that may never be resolved and regret that may never be relieved.
In July, Aaron Boogaard was charged with a felony for distributing a controlled substance — in this case, one pill to his brother the night of his death. The charge was dropped in October. He also told the police that he flushed pills down the toilet after placing the 911 call. He pleaded guilty to tampering with the scene of a death and received probation and 80 hours of community service.
He is trying to revive his own hockey career, and with his name has come the expectation to fight. Last season, in 53 games with the Laredo (Tex.) Bucks of the Central Hockey League, Aaron Boogaard had two goals and 172 penalty minutes. He fought 20 times.
Now 25, he plays for the C.H.L.’s Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees in Hidalgo, Tex. He wears No. 82, marking the year Derek was born. Aaron fought six times in a recent 10-game stretch. At the Wild tribute, he had a bruise under one eye and said he had knocked out an opponent with one punch the night before.
His mother has asked him to quit hockey. But he has no Plan B, either.
“I mean, honestly, what else am I going to do?” Aaron said.
Between trips to Minneapolis to tend to Aaron and his legal issues, Joanne Boogaard distracted herself by gutting and rebuilding her kitchen in Regina. A corner of the refurbished family room is a sort of shrine to Derek. A thigh-high cabinet holds mementos, like photographs and jerseys. Two boxes hold his ashes.
As much as anything, Derek Boogaard always feared being alone.
“We weren’t going to bury him somewhere and just leave him by himself,” Joanne Boogaard said.
Len Boogaard tries to make his own peace. Several times during the summer, he drove back and forth between Ottawa and Minneapolis, about 20 hours each way. For company, he took two bulldogs — Trinity, one that Derek and a girlfriend bought in Louisiana, and a puppy Len Boogaard named Boogey. They stayed in the apartment where Derek died. The lease expired in October.
It was that month that the wait finally ended for the results from Boston. A conference call connected the scientists to Boogaard’s parents and siblings.
The Boogaards learned of the surprising severity of the brain damage. And they heard about the prospects of middle-age dementia.
It was then that Len Boogaard stopped listening. Something occurred to him that he did not expect.
For months, he could not bear the thought of his son’s death. Suddenly, he was forced to imagine the life his son might have been left to live.
Most N.H.L. teams have about 10 affiliated doctors — specialists and dentists with practices of their own. Boogaard had learned that there was no system to track who was prescribing what.
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The Daily Beast
by Buzz Bissinger
Derek Boogaard: The Player Hockey Hooked by Feeding Him Painkillers
To describe Boogaard, who died last year at the age of 28 after an accidental overdose of narcotic painkillers and alcohol, as “using” Vicodin and Percocet and OxyContin while he played for the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers, is simply untrue.
He became addicted to them, and as Branch’s story depicts in meticulous detail and documentation, that addiction was aided and abetted by so many team doctors and team dentists that trying to keep track of who-gave-what-when is almost impossible. In total, more than a dozen team doctors wrote more than a hundred prescriptions for Boogaard for thousands of pills.
What happened was beyond derelict.
It was also preventable.
Boogaard’s sole reason to be, as a hockey player, was in the role of “enforcer,” a “goon,” as if he was part of the mob or the muscle in a loan shark operation. But at 6-foot-8 and nearly 270 pounds, he wasn’t on the ice to play hockey. During his six-year NHL career that began in 2005, he scored three goals. He once went 49 games without a point, 234 games in between goals. In the sad and unjustifiable perversion of a game that is otherwise an exquisite combination of physical skill, speed, grace and endurance, Boogaard was the designated animal, a fisticuff freak show adored by fans whether they wore suits or bragged of drinking beer for breakfast with bellies as proof.
In 287 games, he had a total of 17 points, three goals and 14 assists. But he did rack up 633 penalty minutes during his career, including the playoffs. He was generally considered the number one fighter in the game, going by the nickname of The Boogeyman. His most notable accomplishment was shattering the cheek bone of rival enforcer Todd Fedoruk so badly in 2006 that it had to be rebuilt with metal and mesh. Which of course is no accomplishment at all.
Fighting in hockey has been curtailed to some degree. There are penalties for fighting in the NHL, some of them severe. But it will never be rooted out, because the NHL doesn’t want it rooted out. There are still moments when referees clear out like rubberneckers to allow players to go mano a mano. The fans of course love it, screaming to the rafters with bloodlust, and that’s why half of them go to a hockey game. There is even a website called Hockeyfights.com that keeps records of every fight that has occurred, including the 61 that Boogaard had when he played.
Which is why Boogaard was stoked by team doctors with painkillers, to flail his fists no matter how much the pain, to be The Intimidator.
Fighting in hockey will never be rooted out, because the NHL doesn’t want it rooted out.
Which is why I find what happened to him just as horrific as the New Orleans Saints’ Bountygate program in the National Football League, as disturbing as the likelihood of pro football players acquiring chronic traumatic encephalopathy once their playing days are over because of repeated concussions.
Branch’s story should be required reading for anyone who wants to know the true nature of the pro sports machine. This is not a story based on foggy sources; it is based on page after page after page of documents showing the incomprehensible degree to which Boogaard was given painkillers and sleeping aids by the Rangers and the Wild doctors to the point where he became addicted and was still given them after it was common knowledge he was addicted. The story also shows how players, particularly those at the low end fighting to keep their jobs, aren’t flesh and blood human beings to team management in any pro sport, but cogs to be used and abused to the fullest extent possible, then summarily spit out once they are deemed useless.
According to Branch’s story, there was a 33-day stretch starting in October 2008 in which Boogaard received at least 195 hydrocodone pills from six different doctors, including the Wild medical director Sheldon Burns, after losing a tooth in a fight (hydrocodone is generally known by the brand name Vicodin). There was the 27-day stretch beginning on Dec. 4, 2008 in which Boogaard was prescribed 110 hydrocodone pills. There was the 26-day stretch after the season in April of 2009 in which Boogaard was prescribed a mix of 220 painkillers, OxyContin and Perocet and Vicodin, an average of roughly eight a day. It was also during the same month that Boogaard had surgeries a week apart on his nose and shoulder, a clear indication of the pain he played in during the season.
During a three-month period in the off-season of 2009 two doctors, once again including Burns, prescribed 30 pills each of Ambien on five different occasions.
Boogard also found other sources of pain pills among street dealers. According to his brother, his size was such that he sometimes took as many as 30 painkillers a day and as many as eight at a time to numb the agony. But that was Boogaard’s reality when you are known as the Boogeyman: play through pain if you want to play at all, suck it up and shut up and keep those fists cracking.
Was it any surprise that Boogard was on his way to becoming a drug addict?
Of course not.
During training camp in the fall of 2009, it was obvious to the Wild management he had a serious problem. He was placed in the league’s substance-abuse program and went to a live-in rehabilitation center for drug addiction to narcotic painkillers and sleeping pills. He was in the program for roughly a month when he rejoined the Wild on Oct. 9, 2009. Twelve days later he admirably fulfilled his enforcer role when he badly beat opposing player David Koci.
Wild management must have been pleased that Boogard was back beating the crap out of someone, but they also probably realized that it was no longer prudent to give him narcotic painkillers, since they had already sent him to rehab. Instead a new cocktail emerged, according to Branch’s reporting—the antidepressant Trazodone, a painkiller called Tramadol, and six injections of Toradol in a 10-day stretch in January of 2010 after a shoulder injury.
Boogard’s body was clearly a wreck. The Wild dumped him after the 2009-2010 season. But then the Rangers stepped in. Remarkably, the team knew that he had been in drug rehab, but they still offered him a four-year, $6.5 million contract to intimidate other players and continue his role as a crowd-pleasing freak show.
Boogaard suffered at least three major injuries with the Rangers due to fighting—a broken bridge in his teeth, an injured hand and a broken nose. But the Rangers, apparently hoping against hope there was still some ounce of fight left, gave him many of the same drugs that had caused his addiction with the Wild. On Dec. 9, 2010, Boogard’s season ended when he suffered a concussion in a fight.
“Derek was an addict,’ his father, Len Boogaard, told The Times. “But why was he an addict? Everyone said he had ‘off-ice issues.’ No, it was hockey.”
In brief statements to The Times, both the Wild and the Rangers said Boogaard had been medically treated in a responsible and professional manner.
Which may be the most horrible element of all.