A fa­ther’s lament and his cru­sade

Len Boogaard helped his son be­come a feared NHL en­forcer. At 28, Derek Boogaard was dead

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - ROY MacGRE­GOR GREELY, ONT.

Len Boogaard’s quest to end fight­ing in hockey

The fall of Derek Boogaard is a cau­tion­ary tale about the dan­gers of fight­ing. Boogaard, at 28, died from an ac­ci­den­tal drug over­dose as he tried to cope with the pain that came from his years as a hockey en­forcer. Af­ter wit­ness­ing the phys­i­cal and cog­ni­tive toll hockey took on his son, Len Boogaard is wag­ing a bat­tle of his own: to elim­i­nate fight­ing from the game. But in the five years since Derek’s death, he still won­ders if the NHL is lis­ten­ing

No one no­ticed the re­tired Moun­tie sit­ting, shoul­ders pa­rade-straight, among those gath­ered at Rideau Hall in early De­cem­ber, when Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral David John­ston held a one­day con­fer­ence on con­cus­sion in­jury in sports.

He was never in­tro­duced, his name not men­tioned – though the sur­name would have raised more than a few eye­brows. While oth­ers were in­vited, he had had to ask to be al­lowed to at­tend, squeezed in at the last minute.

As ex­pert af­ter ex­pert spoke, he felt the urge to speak him­self. Af­ter all, he is an ex­pert in an area no one would ever wish to tread: the par­ent of a child lost to drugs, al­co­hol and, ul­ti­mately, death.

In the af­ter­noon ses­sion, Dr. David Mul­der, the highly re­spected team doc­tor for the Mon- treal Cana­di­ens and a rec­og­nized pioneer in trauma treat­ment, was talk­ing about steps the NHL has taken to deal with head in­juries: penal­ties for de­lib­er­ate checks to the head, changes in pro­to­col and treat­ment, in­de­pen­dent spot­ters with the power to re­move a po­ten­tially in­jured player from the bench.

Len Boogaard wanted to in­ter­rupt. He stirred and be­gan to rise, only to feel the hand of his wife Jody, her­self a Moun­tie, on his fore­arm. Jody’s mes­sage was clear: Stay seated, stay quiet. She feared, prob­a­bly jus­ti­fi­ably, that any dis­cus­sion might turn con­fronta­tional, and would cer­tainly be emo­tional.

The re­tired Moun­tie set­tled back in his chair, know­ing Jody was right. All he had wanted to do was ask one very sim­ple ques­tion.

“What is the NHL go­ing to do about fight­ing?”

‘If you want to make it, you got to fight’

Derek Boogaard died on May 13, 2011. He was 28 years old. The New York Times, in­ves­ti­gat­ing the early and shock­ing death of this young hockey player, es­ti­mated that he had been in more than 100 fights, some of which he lost, be­fore he even made the NHL. He fought more than 60 times, los­ing pre­cious few en­coun­ters, while a pro­fes­sional with the Min­nesota Wild and New York Rangers.

Derek’s par­ents both had Dutch her­itage, Len born in the Nether­lands, Joanne the first Cana­di­an­born child in the Vrouwe fam­ily that had em­i­grated to Regina. Their first-born, Derek, was a gi­ant vir­tu­ally from birth. Two boys and a girl would fol­low, all des­tined to soar above six feet.

When Derek was 5, the par­ents signed him up for mi­nor hockey in the small Saskatchewan town of Her­bert, where Len had been posted by the RCMP. Derek was so much big­ger than the other kids that they fell down just run­ning into him. Par­ents com­plained; par­ents would al­ways com­plain. They com­plained so much that at age 12 he quit the game and took up skate­board­ing.

He was huge and fairly ath­letic, 6-foot-4 and fill­ing out at 15. Floyd Hal­cro, a friend of Len’s, was coach­ing the ban­tam AA team in Melfort, Len’s next RCMP post­ing, and con­vinced Derek to come back into the game. Big, shy, a “teddy bear” at home, ac­cord­ing to his three younger sib­lings, Derek took on the role of “en­forcer” as it meant ice time and ac­cep­tance by his Melfort Mus­tangs team­mates. They counted on him and he liked to be counted on, wanted to mat­ter to his team­mates.

Len Boogaard was en­thu­si­as­tic about his son’s re­turn to the game. He of­ten drove Derek and team­mates to out-of-town games in a po­lice car – “I had per­mis­sion” – and would even drive Derek into Saska­toon for box­ing lessons.

Len shud­ders to­day to re­call those drives into the city. “You’re a dad,” he says. “You’re sup­posed to be look­ing af­ter your kids. In hind­sight it is al­ways, ‘Well, maybe I should have done this, maybe I should have done that.’ When I was tak­ing him to Saska­toon for box­ing lessons at 15, it’s like, ‘ What was I think­ing?’ ”

In one game that the on-ice of­fi­cials lost con­trol of, Derek waded into the op­po­si­tion bench, the play­ers scat­ter­ing like rab­bits. There just hap­pened to be two scouts from the Regina Pats in the stands and they so liked what they saw they im­me­di­ately put Derek Boogaard’s name on the team’s pro­tected list. He was far from the best player on the ice, but he had some­thing all ju­nior teams wanted.

“He was told, ‘If you want to make it, you got to fight,’ ” Len says. “‘Wher­ever you go you got to fight, you got to fight.’ ”

At 17 he went off to Regina for the Pats’ pre­sea­son train­ing camp and had a dozen scraps in the team’s first four scrim­mages. He had a new nick­name – “Boogey­man” – which the fans loved. When he lost a fight in a game against the Kelowna Rock­ets, the Pats traded him to the Prince Ge­orge Cougars, where he was far away, alone and mis­er­able. His par­ents’ mar­riage had bro­ken up, he kept chang­ing bil­lets and he was flunk­ing out in school. His sea­son ended with a bro­ken jaw, cour­tesy of an­other player’s fist.

He re­turned to Prince Ge­orge for a se­cond sea­son – his body round­ing out to the 6-foot-7, 265 pounds he would take into the NHL – and, happy with his bil­lets, he had a good year. A fan poll named him the tough­est player in the con­fer­ence. He scored twice, once in the play­offs. In hand-writ­ten notes about his life that his fam­ily found af­ter his death, he had writ­ten, “It was the best feel­ing I had the last 2 years.”

But Derek Boogaard wouldn’t be drafted for his goal-scor­ing. The Min­nesota Wild took him 202nd over­all in the 2001 en­try draft.

Derek fin­ished out his ju­nior ca­reer with the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Wild signed him to a con­tract, send­ing him off to play for the Louisiana IceGa­tors of the East Coast Hockey League. Lonely, he bought an English bull­dog he named Trin­ity, who would out­live him by sev­eral years. To­day, Trin­ity’s ashes are in an urn in Len Boogaard’s home in Greely, Ont., near Ot­tawa, and two more English bull­dogs have taken her place. One is called Peb­bles, the other Boo­gie.

From the ECHL, Derek moved up to the AHL, play­ing two sea­sons with the Hous­ton Aeros. He was so pop­u­lar with fans that when they had a “bob­ble­head” night for him, it was the doll’s fist that bob­bled.

At the Wild’s 2005 camp, head coach Jac­ques Le­maire saw how in­tim­i­dat­ing Derek could be on the ice and made room on the ros­ter for the en­forcer. Early in the 2006-07 sea­son, in a game against the Ana­heim Ducks, Derek would ce­ment his rep­u­ta­tion with a punch that so shat­tered the cheek­bone of the Ducks’ en­forcer, Todd Fe­doruk, that it had to be re­con­structed from metal and mesh. The next sea­son, Fe­doruk would be­come a team­mate, their stalls side-by­side, and they would be­come best friends.

Some­what naively, Derek be­lieved he had value as a player as well as a fighter. “He was pi­geon­holed,” Len says. The NHL had brought in a new rule to get rid of staged fights at the end of a game. Coaches that sent out their en­forcers in the fi­nal five min­utes could be fined $10,000 if a fight broke out. “Derek went to Jac­ques and said, ‘Look, I want to play in those five min­utes,’ And Jac­ques said, ‘I’m not go­ing to.’ So Derek gave him a cheque [for $10,000] and said, ‘If you play me, and I get into a fight, that’s yours.’ When Jac­ques came to the fu­neral, Jac­ques still had that cheque in his pocket.”

The fight­ing was tak­ing its toll on Derek. He had hurt a shoul­der play­ing for the IceGa­tors and painkillers had helped. He had

My son was an en­forcer. He was there sim­ply to fight. He wasn’t a goal-scorer, just bare-knuckle box­ing on ice. So the first thing to do is get rid of fight­ing. Len Boogaard Derek Boogaard’s fa­ther

back surgery dur­ing the 2008-09 sea­son with the Wild and was pre­scribed Per­co­cet, which he would some­times gob­ble up to 10 pills at a time. He be­gan tak­ing OxyCon­tin, de­lib­er­ately chew­ing them to re­duce the time-re­lease as­pect of the pills.

The pill de­pen­dency got so bad that he missed camp in 2009. The rea­son, never given at the time, was that his fa­ther had forced him to seek help for his drug de­pen­dency.

“I found out about it,” Len re­mem­bers. “I con­fronted him with it, sort of sur­rep­ti­tiously. He told me to leave it alone be­cause it would ruin his ca­reer, that he could han­dle it him­self, that he could look af­ter him­self. And he could deal with it. I said, ‘No, that’s not the way it’s go­ing to work.’ So I made phone calls and within a day or two days he was in re­hab in Cal­i­for­nia.”

Len Boogaard un­der­stood his son’s re­luc­tance to seek help: “It’s a job, and if you’re not will­ing to do that job there are 1,000 kids stand­ing be­hind you will­ing to do that job.”

Derek had cause for con­cern. The Wild had an­other young player, John Scott, who was an inch taller than Derek, al­most as heavy, and just as will­ing. “John Scott was there to take his job,” was Len’s view.

Scott cer­tainly un­der­stood the job de­scrip­tion. Writ­ing re­cently in the Play­ers’ Tri­bune, an ath­lete-run web­site, the now-re­tired Scott fig­ured he had 43 fights dur­ing his NHL ca­reer and lost only one. He had al­most as many chil­dren, four, as goals, five. He saw his role as much the same as a bar bouncer: “If you’re do­ing your job right, there is no fight.”

Scott, who was voted to last year’s all-star team as a fan joke, wrote that he had a con­fes­sion to make: “I don’t care what peo­ple re­mem­ber about me as a hockey player, but please re­mem­ber this one thing: I didn’t love to fight.” It wasn’t the ac­tual fight­ing that was the prob­lem, Scott wrote, but the nerves, the an­tic­i­pa­tion, the stress on your psy­che.

“I wished I could have scored goals,” Scott wrote. “I mean, scor­ing is a lot of fun. But that’s not me. I’m not as good at that as the other guys. What I do have is a nat­u­ral pro­tec­tive in­stinct. I was born with size, and I was good at punch­ing guys in the face. I didn’t love it, but I was good at it, and I was happy to do what­ever it took to pro­tect my team­mates.”

Derek Boogaard felt much the same. When he re­turned from re­hab, how­ever, he seemed dif­fer­ent some­how. He would of­ten fall asleep, for­get things. But he kept fight­ing. He was happy pro­tect­ing his team­mates.

In the sum­mer of 2010, Derek be­came an un­re­stricted free agent and signed a four-year, $6.5-mil­lion (U.S.) deal with the Rangers. At 28, he was rich. He was in New York. And he was back in trou­ble. He would play only 22 games for the Rangers. His fights did not go well. In a home game, with fans chant­ing his name, he was bested by Ed­mon­ton’s Steve MacIn­tyre and suf­fered a bro­ken nose. With the nose still not healed, he played a game later that month in Ot­tawa where the Se­na­tors’ en­forcer, Matt Carkner, stunned him with a punch to the still-frag­ile nose. He never played again.

He was suf­fer­ing con­cus­sion symp­toms, and they were hor­ri­ble. The rink made him nau­seous.

When he felt well enough to skate again, the team said he could skate be­fore their prac­tices or af­ter. He be­came con­vinced, rightly or not, that the coach­ing staff was os­tra­ciz­ing him. He be­came a recluse in his New York apart­ment, go­ing out mainly to pur­chase more painkillers in what­ever method he had to. When his fa­ther came to visit, he broke down mul­ti­ple times, the huge hockey en­forcer sob­bing in his fa­ther’s arms.

One of his Ranger team­mates, Sean Avery, well known for his ec­cen­tric­i­ties, got Derek in­teres ted in Bud­dhism. He even got Derek to do some­thing he hadn’t

done since school: read a book on it. Derek be­gan col­lect­ing small Bud­dhas and plac­ing them about his apart­ment. A ce­ment Bud­dha is to­day in the back­yard of his fa­ther’s home near Ot­tawa.

Len Boogaard be­lieves his son found some peace in read­ing about Bud­dhism.

The first no­ble truth, af­ter all, is about suf­fer­ing – phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal pain – the se­cond about what leads to such suf­fer­ing, the third that suf­fer­ing can be over­come and hap­pi­ness found if one only fol­lows the path found in the fourth truth.

Derek was cer­tainly seek­ing hap­pi­ness. He found it not on the ice but in work­ing with a group called De­fend­ing the Blue Line (now known as United He­roes League), which gets mil­i­tary kids in­volved in sports by pro­vid­ing equip­ment and tick­ets.

Af­ter his son’s death, Len Boogaard re­ceived a let­ter from a mem­ber of the U.S. Air Force say­ing Derek had “made a mon­u­men­tal im­pres­sion on our mil­i­tary fam­i­lies.” An­other let­ter came from a lo­cal food bank, telling the fam­ily how Derek would of­ten show up with gro­ceries and help out. Un­for­tu­nately, Derek’s con­di­tion was wors­en­ing. He be­came ob­ses­sive. Len found that his son’s Fe­bru­ary phone bill was more than 200 pages long and in­cluded nearly 14,000 text mes­sages. Many of those mes­sages were to a coun­sel­lor he had be­friended in re­hab. The Rangers sent him back to re­hab in Cal­i­for­nia but he did not stay long, leav­ing to at­tend a fam­ily event de­spite the pro­gram di­rec­tor’s ad­vice. He flew back to Min­neapo­lis, where he kept an apart­ment.

Af­ter an evening out with friends and fam­ily, he re­turned to the apart­ment and the next day was found life­less. When Len Boogaard went to the fu­neral home to col­lect his son’s ashes, he was shocked to dis­cover they were in two urns, one be­ing too small to con­tain all the re­mains.

“The fu­neral di­rec­tor told me they had never seen that be­fore,” Len says.

‘The first thing to do is get rid of fight­ing’

Len Boogaard is a trained cop and went to work. He found that Derek had ex­changed sev­eral texts the night be­fore he died with an­other coun­sel­lor. Derek ob­vi­ously knew he was in dis­tress. In check­ing with area phar­ma­cies, Len was able to de­ter­mine that, in his son’s fi­nal sea­son with the Wild, Derek had ob­tained 25 pre­scrip­tions for oxy­codone and hy­drocodone. The pre­scrip­tions came from 10 dif­fer­ent doc­tors and added up to more than 600 pills. He had no idea how many painkillers his son had found on the il­licit mar­ket.

The coro­ner con­cluded that Derek Boogaard had died of an ac­ci­den­tal over­dose of a lethal mix­ture of pre­scrip­tion painkillers and al­co­hol.

Be­fore Derek’s body was cre­mated, Bos­ton Univer­sity had con­tacted the fam­ily. Dr. Ann McKee, a pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­ogy, wished to ex­am­ine Derek’s brain to see if he had suf­fered from chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE) and the Boogaards read­ily agreed. When McKee fin­ished her ex­am­i­na­tion, she told them that Derek had CTE in his brain to a level she had never found in some­one so young. She told them that, had Derek lived, he would have had de­men­tia by mid­dle age.

When the New York Times ap­proached the fam­ily about do­ing a story on Derek’s rise and fall, the fam­ily agreed. Len turned over all his in­ves­ti­ga­tions and Derek’s own hand­writ­ten notes on his life to re­porter John Branch. Branch, a Pulitzer Prize win­ner for other work, pro­duced a riv­et­ing three-part se­ries and video en­ti­tled Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey En­forcer. In 2014, Branch pub­lished the book Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard, which examines the en­forcer’s life and tragic death in de­tail.

Len Boogaard has not been able to read the book, though he holds enor­mous re­spect for John Branch.

“I can deal with talk­ing about Derek and his ad­dic­tion and the doc­tors and all that stuff,” he says, “but when I have to read about his up­bring­ing and all that he went through … I can’t. It’s the same with my wife and the oth­ers. They can’t read it, ei­ther.”

The Times in­ves­ti­ga­tion, a con­cus­sion sum­mit con­vened by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in 2014 and var­i­ous law­suits by for­mer ath­letes against pro­fes­sional foot­ball and hockey have con­vinced the Boogaard fam­ily that change is more likely to come in the United States be­fore Canada.

“There seems to be more cov­er­age of it down in the States,” says Len Boogaard. “Amer­i­cans seem to be more in­ter­ested in re­solv­ing this and do­ing some­thing about the sit­u­a­tion.

“It’s a sa­cred cow here in Canada. You can’t say any­thing deroga­tory or neg­a­tive about hockey.”

Sci­en­tists say that the de­vel­op­ing brain is most vul­ner­a­ble and Len Boogaard won­ders how, then, ju­nior hockey can jus­tify fight­ing on any level. “Why would you have a 16-year-old fight­ing a 20-year-old?” he asks. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

His son was groomed as a fighter and will­ingly took on the role, but Len says the “Boogey­man” was not his son. “It was a per­sona,” he says. “When he went onto the ice this was his per­sona. This was what he had to do. It was his job. Take him out of that en­vi­ron­ment and he was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent kid.

“When he came home from Prince Ge­orge, here’s this kid, 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, and he was a fighter in the West­ern Hockey League and now he’s rolling around on the floor with the puppy. And then you re­al­ize that he’s only a kid.”

The fa­ther re­mains in­tensely proud of his son for fight­ing through all the ad­ver­sity stand­ing be­tween him and his dream of play­ing in the NHL.

“The bull­shit he went through play­ing for those teams in Her­bert and Melfort and when he was in ju­nior,” Len says. “Just the amount of ef­fort and de­sire and willpower that he had. He wanted to play in the NHL and ul­ti­mately he did.”

But the fa­ther does not fool him­self. Derek was a good, at times fine, ath­lete – he won events in swim­ming, played foot­ball – but he was not a gifted hockey star.

If there were no fight­ing al­lowed, Len knows, “Derek wouldn’t have been play­ing in the NHL.”

Len Boogaard says he has lost the de­sire to watch the NHL: “I watched the World Cup and that was hockey. None of this bull­shit, fights, scrums in front of the net all the time. It was just up and down hockey.”

What deeply both­ers Len is that he knows he him­self was an en­abler, even if un­wit­tingly. He took his son to Saska­toon for box­ing lessons. He was there, as so many Cana­dian par­ents are, as the child rode his dream as far as it would take him.

“My son was an en­forcer,” Len says. “He was there sim­ply to fight. He wasn’t a goal-scorer, just bare-knuckle box­ing on ice. So the first thing to do is get rid of fight­ing.”

When Ken Dry­den, the for­mer NHL player turned au­thor and politi­cian, spoke at the Gover­norGen­eral’s con­fer­ence last month, he told the gath­er­ing that on an is­sue such as con­cus­sions, where so much has been learned, “25 or 50 years from now, peo­ple will look back at us and say, ‘How could they have been so stupid?’”

That’s how Len Boogaard feels. “I didn’t know any­thing about con­cus­sions,” he says.

“The thing that kept crop­ping up in my mind was his hands. His hands were just man­gled. His knuck­les were pushed back. He was los­ing dex­ter­ity in them. I wor­ried about what he was go­ing to do be­cause they were just essentially claws, his hands. And that’s the only thing that I wor­ried about – his hands. I didn’t have any idea of the con­cus­sion is­sue.”

That all be­gan to change with the 2010 death of Bob Probert, an­other NHL fighter who had strug­gled with al­co­hol and drugs. The for­mer player with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Black­hawks died at 45 when he suf­fered a heart at­tack while boat­ing with his four young chil­dren and in-laws.

A sub­se­quent ex­am­i­na­tion of his brain at Bos­ton Univer­sity found ev­i­dence of CTE.

Probert’s death came just as Derek Boogaard was sign­ing what would be his fi­nal con­tract, join­ing the New York Rangers in what would prove to be his fi­nal sea­son of hockey. An au­to­bi­og­ra­phy on Probert’s ca­reer and strug­gles, Tough Guy: My Life on

the Edge, was re­leased posthu­mously and Len pur­chased a copy.

“I started look­ing at Derek and re­flect­ing,” Len says. “A lot of the same things in the last cou­ple of years. The short-term mem­ory loss, the im­pul­sive­ness, the ad­dic­tion is­sues etc., all those things as­so­ci­ated with con­cus­sion and CTE – Derek had them.”

The de­ci­sion to send Derek’s brain to Bos­ton Univer­sity had been easy to make.

The fam­ily merely wished ver­i­fi­ca­tion of what they al­ready knew. The fam­ily also brought a wrong­ful-death law­suit against the NHL which was ini­tially tossed out of court but has since been re­vived and re­vised.

What Len Boogaard wants above all else is a com­plete ban on fight­ing in hockey. Had he stood up at Rideau Hall that De­cem­ber day and asked what the NHL was go­ing to do about fight­ing, he would have had a very sim­ple sug­ges­tion.

If, as the league it­self has said, fight­ing causes about 10 per cent of the con­cus­sions suf­fered in a sea­son, why not re­duce those con­cus­sion in­juries by 10 per cent im­me­di­ately by putting an end to fight­ing?

“How do you square the cir­cle where they want to get rid of head shots but they al­low fight­ing in the league?” he said.

“What am I miss­ing?”

The thing that kept crop­ping up in my mind was his hands. His hands were just man­gled. His knuck­les were pushed back. He was los­ing dex­ter­ity in them … And that’s the only thing that I wor­ried about – his hands. I didn’t have any idea of the con­cus­sion is­sue.” Len Boogaard Derek Boogaard’s fa­ther

DAVE CHAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Len Boogaard and his fam­ily brought a wrong­ful-death law­suit against the NHL which was ini­tially tossed out of court but has since been re­vived and re­vised.

MATT SLOCUM/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jody Shel­ley, left, of Philadel­phia Fly­ers and the New York Rangers' Derek Boogaard raise their fists to fight dur­ing a game in Philadel­phia in Novem­ber, 2010.

DAVE CHAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A Boogaard fam­ily photo fea­tur­ing fa­ther and son hangs in the fam­ily’s Ot­tawa home.

DAVE CHAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Derek’s fa­ther Len, seen here in his Ot­tawa-area home sur­rounded by his late son’s mem­o­ra­bilia, can not bring him­self to read ‘Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard,’ the book doc­u­ment­ing Derek’s rise and fall from hockey star­dom.

MAR­CUS YAM/NYT

Boogaard was a fan favourite in Hous­ton. His Aeros’ bob­ble­head fea­tured bob­bling fists.

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