This week, The New York Times published a 3-part series about the late Derek Boogaard. Regardless of what team you root for, the whole series is a must read and as incredibly heartbreaking and disturbing as it gets. The third part that ran on Tuesday, December 5th laid out Boogaard’s life in the grips of his addiction and was the most troubling of all.
It’s a vicious circle when it comes to the enforcer role. Boogaard’s livelihood was made with his intimidating size and with his fists. As chronicled in first part of the series in the Times, there was no plan B for him. It was hockey or bust. Oftentimes, the heavyweight enforcer is a player that does not bring another skill set to the table. (For example, while nowhere in the weight/size class as Boogaard, look at Brandon Prust. He will go in there and fight, but is a capable penalty killer and can score a few goals as well.) He is the most likely to be the odd man out in a lineup if offense and not muscle is needed in a matchup. If he goes down with an injury, there’s possible someone else in the system looking to take his place. There’s tremendous pressure on him, perhaps more than any other player on a squad, to do whatever it takes to stay in the lineup. It was no different with Boogaard. Speed and skating prowess were obviously lacking, as was offensive ability. Missing time for a concussion or other injury was not only a threat to his tough-guy reputation, but to his career.
The addict will always find a way to get the substance he’s most addicted to (as Boogaard did on the black market), and the addict needs to wants the help he or she is offered to overcome the demons. But this series paints a disturbing portrait of those who were in a position to help save him from himself, to see to it that he did what was best for his personal well-being, failing him miserably and further enabling his addiction. John Branch, who authored the series, writes in part 3:
“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.
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 … Combined, the prescriptions were for 370 tablets of painkillers continaing hydrocodone, typically sold under brand names like Vicodin.”
Branch also notes that when Boogaard became a free agent in 2010, the Rangers were fully aware of his addictions, and in all likelihood his injuries (including the concussions that had actually been recorded ). Troubles be damned, the Rangers gave him a 4-year, $6.5 million contract. Taking his substance abuse issues out of the equation, its length and amount made it a head-scratcher for a one-dimensional player.
On December 9th, 2010, Boogaard suffered not only a shoulder injury in a fight with Ottawa’s Matt Carkner, but a concussion as well. And the Rangers continued to fail him too, based on what the enforcer’s father observed in his son’s Manhattan apartment one month later:
“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.”
Boogaard had been involved in the joint NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. He had spent time at a rehab facility at the start of the 2009-10 season while with the Wild, and then yet again in April 2011 with the Rangers. A little over a month later, while on an approved leave from the facility, Boogaard was back in Minnesota, and on an alcohol and prescription drug binge that in the end, took his life.
When all was said and done, the Boogaards chose to donate their son’s brain to C.T.E. research at Boston University. The results, also made public this week, were shocking. At the age of 28, his stage of CTE was far more advanced than it was in fellow enforcer Bob Probert, who had passed away at 45 and also battle substance abuse. In all likelihood, had Boogaard made it to 45, he would have been living with dementia.
Despite him being the 1st non-retired NHLer diagnosed with the disease and the 4th player in the last 2 years, the NHL has chosen not to see the validity of the research. While the League has worked to try and eliminate head shots from the game, they have not taken precautionary measures to protect those who are the most susceptible to repeated blows to the head.
Why? No one’s going to come out and say for sure. Let’s face it though, professional sports is big business. There’s big money on the line for the team who signed the free agent to a huge contract, and the player may feel an obligation to live up to that contract, even if it’s not in his best interest. Violence sells in all facets of pop culture, including sports (witness the rise of MMA’s popularity in North America). There will always be that faction of NHL fans who love the fights, and attend games in hopes of seeing one. As fans we too, are just as guilty of enabling this cycle to continue. When both were with the Wild, Boogaard’s jersey sold better than that of Marian Gaborik’s. Clearly it wasn’t because Boogaard was the more talented hockey player. We glorify the players who play through pain and broken bones and all sorts of injuries, and mock other professional athletes that seem to be out two months because of a mere hangnail. Go to any NHL arena and when there’s a fight, the majority of fans are up out of their seats cheering their guy on, applauding his efforts when he takes down his fellow combatant and the referees finally break it up. I certainly fall into that category. While I personally don’t go to games hoping to see a fight, I can certainly tell you that I was up on my feet Tuesday night rooting on Prust on in his early first period fight with the Leafs’ Jay Rosehill.
Nobody knows how many more Derek Boogaards there are in the League – whether obtaining painkillers legally or illegally so they can stand to take the physical punishment the game metes out on a nightly basis, or already suffering from some stage of CTE. Perhaps we’ll never know. The NHL, its clubs and the NHLPA need to do something to protect these players from themselves, but will they? The NHLPA’s job is to look out for the player. Are they going to stand up and demand something be done about their well-being, even if it may lead to some of the rank and file losing their jobs? Not likely. Is the NHL fearful that its fanbase is so into the fights that taking actions that may make it safer or perhaps curbing the bare-knuckled combat altogether will cause them to turn away from the sport and eat into revenues? There’s no way to know for sure, but I’d be willing to put money on it. If it were so, it’s a sad state of affairs when the almighty dollar is far more important than the well-being of young men, some of whom may wind up as vegetables before they have a chance to have a mid-life crisis.
“Like” Hockey Independent Rangers on Facebook
About the Author: Likes: Hockey, the New York Rangers, King Henrik, singing the Rangers goal song, "The Save", the sound skates make against ice, heckling Marty Brodeur. Dislikes: 3-point games, front-office mismanagement, Denis Potvin, overpriced arena beer. Interested? Follow me on Twitter: @CC_927