Boogaard’s career as an enforcer scarred by substance abuse
BOY on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard sets out innocently enough. It opens, naturally, on the minor hockey rinks of rural Saskatchewan, the spawning ground of countless boyhood hockey dreams, including a five-year-old Derek Boogaard, a tall and chubby-cheeked kid in the winter of 1987. It ends with Boogaard dead of a lethal combination of alcohol and prescription painkillers in May 2001, at age 28. The meat of this story is the in-between; the ultimately ill-fated journey of Boogaard, who — as documented by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Branch — would fall through every crack in professional hockey’s supposed string of safety nets. This book is not a delight to read, nor was that the intent. It’s the story of a downward spiral that sheds valuable light on the violent underbelly of the NHL. In fact, you could call Boogaard a poster boy for the gathering movement to rid hockey of fighting — except, sadly, he’s rather one of the more recent casualties of a system that, as the New York Times writer reveals, is either incapable or unwilling to confront the dark byproducts of nurturing and employing grown men to, at the drop of a puck, punch opposing players, most often other “enforcers,” in the face. After all, the list already includes the likes of NHL prize-fighters Bob Probert and John Kordic (just to name two) whose struggles with addiction ended in premature death. Probert’s story was also told in book form, entitled Tough Guy: My Life on the Edge. Probert, who had 10 stints in rehabilitation during his career, was widely considered one of the most feared enforcers in NHL history. He died of a heart attack at age 46. The role of the enforcer, or goon, is also detailed by Branch, whose book is clearly meant for a larger audience than would typically consume the standard NHL star bio that would flit from one grand accomplishment to another. Most Canadian hockey fans would take such background for granted. But it’s important to underscore that the first report of an indoor hockey game, recorded in 1875, ended with a fight. Boogaard’s story is not easy to pigeonhole. Yes, it’s about the role of fighting in hockey for a six-footeight, 258-pound man who scored just three goals in 227 games, and fought 61 times. But it’s also about addiction and the tenuous and cutthroat nature of his chosen profession. At the very least, the reader will learn a little about the laundry list of prescription drugs Boogaard took — cyclobenzaprine (a muscle relaxer), tramadol and trazodone (anti-depressants), Restoril (a sedative), zolpidem (also known as Ambien), oxymorphone, hydrocodone and oxycontin (opioids). Boogaard, whose occupation consisted of delivering and receiving vicious punches to the head, was on a constant diet of pills during his NHL career, which spanned six seasons with the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers. The exhaustive details are contained in the book, but consider that even after Boogaard was admitted to the league’s substance abuse program, even after testing positive in the majority of at least 20 drug tests, the player received at least 12 prescriptions for 274 Ambien pills from team doctors for both the Wild and Rangers, plus an additional 64 pills for hydrocodone or Vicodin. And that’s not including the copious amounts of pills (impossible to document) that Boogaard bought from dealers on the street. Indeed, some of the key components of the book are the cellphone and banking records, medical reports and prescription records from pharmacies uncovered by Boogaard’s father, Len, a former RCMP officer. Also invaluable are the 16 pages of handwritten notes found in Boogaard’s apartment after his death, which are brief glimpses into his formative years in junior hockey in the hardscrabble WHL. However, less conclusive is the role of Boogaard’s countless on-ice battles in his death. Boogaard’s brain, which weighed 1,580 grams, was subsequently studied by experts who found progressive brain damage, which is commonly known as CTE. The pathology was ultimately deemed inconclusive because the symptoms occurred during the same time Boogaard was exhibiting narcotic abuse. Regardless, Boogaard’s story and his premature demise only cast a greater shadow on hockey’s pugilistic element. The debate will probably will not soon end. Neither will stories of the likes of Boogaard and Probert and Kordic. When he died, Boogaard’s autopsy revealed the toxic levels of alcohol and painkillers for overdose victims. And another thing. The heavy scars on his hands.
Even after testing positive in multiple drug tests, Derek Boogaard was able to receive numerous prescriptions for painkillers from team doctors.
Boogaard’s family leaves a chapel in Regina
after his funeral in May 2011.
BoBoy on IIce: ThThe Life and nd Death of Derek Boogaard