The sad rise and fall of Derek Boogaard

David Koci #48 of the Chicago Blackhawks and Derek Boogaard #24 of the Minnesota Wild fight in the second period of their game October 4, 2007 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Scott A. Schneider / Getty Images Sport

TORONTO – When the Minnesota Wild paid tribute to Derek Boogaard following the NHL enforcer’s death, the four-minute 45-second video showed the six-foot-seven 265-pounder making hits, smiling with fans and doing charity work.

It included each of his three NHL goals. But it did not show a single punch.

“That really struck me,” said author John Branch. “It was as if we are not going to be honest with ourselves about why he was there. And why he was popular.”

Branch, who documents Boogaard’s troubled life in a new book, notes that Boogaard fought at least 61 times over an NHL career that spanned 277 regular-season games and produced three goals, 13 assists and 589 penalty minutes.

Boogaard fought more than 100 times, starting at 16, before he reached the NHL.

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And he never scored more than twice in a season.

Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard” tells the sad story of a larger-than-life man-child who struggled to fit in on and off the ice. Initially a hockey liability, Boogaard found a role in protecting his teammates.

At first, it was spontaneous.

During a bantam game in Melfort, Sask., he sent opposing players scattering for safety when he rushed their bench after a brawl broke out.

Regina Pats scouts in attendance were so impressed that they immediately put in a claim for his junior rights and came up with a nickname: “The Boogeyman.”

Later, the behaviour was expected of him as he rose through the junior and pro ranks.

It didn’t take long for the message to get through. In his second camp with the Regina Pats, the 17-year-old Boogaard fought 12 times in the first four scrimmages.

As a member of the Minnesota Wild, Boogaard was beloved. But his game came with a mental and physical cost.

At 25, Boogaard was beginning his third NHL season and was starting his side down a slippery slope.

“Within a year, Derek would have teeth knocked out and be prescribed vast amounts of painkillers by team doctors,” Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter for the New York Times, writes in the book.

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“In another year, he would be in substance abuse rehabilitation. In another year, he would be in New York, rich and miserable and alone. And in another year, he would be dead.”

Boogaard died May 13, 2011, of an accidental overdose, a lethal mix of alcohol and prescription painkillers. He was 28.

Subsequent study of his brain showed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. Boogaard was classified as Stage 2 of the four stages of the disease – more severe than Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University professor of neurology and pathology, had seen before in a person that young.

Boogaard’s death, coupled with the suicides of Rick Rypien and Wade Belak just months later, focused a spotlight on hockey tough guys and their cost of doing business.

Boogaard played five seasons for the Minnesota Wild before signing a four-year, US$6.5-million deal with the Rangers. He would only play 22 games for the Rangers in the 2010-11 season as he fell victim to his demons.

Hockey had started as a place of refuge for Boogaard. But it didn’t end up that way.

“It was a rare place for Derek where he felt like he fit in,” Branch said in an interview.

“And certainly when he made the NHL and became the Boogeyman and became well-known, I think he was very, very proud of fitting in and being somebody who was looked up to as a protector of his teammates. That was a big deal for him.”

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“Now as I wrote in the book, I don’t think he loved what he did. But I certainly know that he loved what it got him.”

Branch, who never met Boogaard, wrote a three-part series on the tough guy for the Times that ran in December 2011. It was titled “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.”

Part of the initial interest was that the Boogaard family had donated Derek’s brain to scientists at Boston University and the Times had led the way in coverage of brain injuries in sports.

Branch’s then-sports editor Joe Sexton suggested that in tracking the scientific examination of Boogaard’s brain, it might also be interesting to “delve into that world of enforcers.”

“Maybe there’s a bigger story there,” Branch recalled his editor saying.

Initially Branch did not know how the Boogaard family might react.

“I told them from the get-go, I’m not sure what it’s going to uncover, I’m not sure if there are things that are going to be make your son look bad, ridiculous, heroic, whatever. I can’t promise where it’s all going to go.”

The family proved to be helpful and supportive although Branch says: “Whether they like the book, I don’t know.”

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Derek’s father Len provided Branch with a riveting road map of medical, banking, phone and other records available only to next of kin.

“He was a police officer, a Canadian Mountie,” said Branch. “And I think after Derek died, he saw a lot of his role as investigating how his son died. And so he did a ton of great investigative work that a reporter probably couldn’t do, (like) access to a lot of records. And he handed those things over.”

The family is pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against the NHL, which explains the league’s resistance to co-operate on the book.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did speak to Branch before the newspaper series ran. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly was also interviewed in 2011.

The Minnesota Wild, while initially helpful, and New York Rangers were also not very co-operative.

Readers of the book will wonder about the substance abuse programs Boogaard was in. Nothing much seemed to happen as he spiralled out of control, although Boogaard appeared to take advantage of holes in the system.

Branch calls it one of “more head-shaking parts” of Boogaard’s story, noting gaps of communication between counsellors and Boogaard.

“Derek never really paid a price, even when he was failing drug tests,” he said.

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During his second stint in rehab, Boogaard was granted two “long extended recesses” to leave rehab. It was the first night of the second recess – ostensibly to attend his sister’s college graduation – that he overdosed.

“I’m not sure Derek was the most willing participant,” Branch said of rehab. “But certainly I think there are some holes and some flaws in the substance abuse program and in their oversight of doctors.”

No doubt people tried. The book says Boogaard and an NHL substance abuse counsellor exchanged seven texts the night before he died.

The book’s trail of prescriptions and pills is chilling. Branch, who was unable to speak to team doctors, says matching medical records with games shows a lot of Boogaard’s locker-room injections and pills came the day before or day of fights.

“There is certainly a pattern of propping him up, getting him ready for the next big fight. You see that pattern in the drug use.”

Boogaard realized, according to Branch, that there was little communication between doctors, so he would get a prescription from one doctor and then go to another for more pills.

During his fourth NHL season in Minnesota, Boogaard had at least 25 prescriptions for oxycodone and hydrocodone, a total of 622 pills from 10 doctors – eight Wild doctors, an oral surgeon in Minneapolis and a doctor from another team.

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“I think one of the more interesting parts is even once he had reached the Rangers, he was still getting pills from Wild doctors,” Branch said.

The book is more than the sad decline of a hockey enforcer. Branch documents Boogaard’s life from an early age, helping pull back the curtain with 16 pages of handwritten notes Boogaard made about his childhood.

Branch calls the misspelled notes “vital” to both the newspaper series and the book.

“I’m proud of the fact that this is a book really about his entire life and not just about his hockey career. I think it makes it a little bit more of a human story,” he added.

Branch, who covered hockey some 10 to 12 years ago while working in Colorado, watched a lot of hockey fights in researching the book.

He says he used to think of them as a “silly sideshow.” That has changed.

“Now when I watch them. I just think it’s a little bit sad and a little bit ridiculous that they are allowing people to fight.

“The NHL will tell you that they are very concerned about injuries and head injuries and concussions for their players. And it’s hard to balance that with the sight of two men fighting, bare knuckles, sometimes the helmets come off, fans cheering, officials standing by watching, teammates watching. And one man trying to knock out the other one.

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“Now that we know more about brain injuries, it could be a tough spectacle for me to watch these days.”

The 47-year-old Branch, who is now based in California, also worries about how society views its athletes.

“It saddens and frustrates me that hockey and I think a lot of other professional sports see these athletes as replaceable parts. And they’ll do what they can to keep them on the ice or on the field. And once they’re of little use to them, they are disposed of.

“I think Derek was seen as somebody who could help the team and when he was no longer helping the team, it was ‘We need to move on and thanks for your time, and there’s the door.’

“I really think there’s something to be said about the way we treat our athletes and not just the way teams treat their athletes, it’s the way fans view their athletes and the media view the athletes. We are very quick to prop them but we’re very slow to help them in their times of need.”

– “Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard,” By John Branch, HarperCollins, 327 pages.

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