The fight that catalyzed Derek Boogaard’s hockey career took place when he was legally still a child. At 15, Boogaard, who already stood 6 foot 4, 215 pounds, was playing a game for the Melfort Mustangs, a Saskatchewan Junior A team, when a line brawl began. “I pulled a guy outta the pile and kicked the shit outta him,” he later recounted. Then, as he was being taken to the penalty box, he got into a verbal altercation with an opponent, broke away from his escort, entered the bench, and started throwing punches.
After the game, Boogaard’s father, Len, an RCMP officer, shamed him for what he’d done. But two Western Hockey League scouts, in attendance to observe other, more skilled players, rushed giddily back to their hotel room to add Boogaard, by fax, to the protected list of the Regina Pats, beating the rush of claims that followed. “Impressive, really impressive what he did,” one of the scouts, Todd Ripplinger, remembered.
This tale is relayed early on in Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard, a new biography of the late Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers enforcer, who died of an alcohol and painkiller overdose in May, 2011, at the age of 28. The book’s author is John Branch, a New York Times reporter who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for Snow Fall, a multimedia-rich story, about a 2012 avalanche in Washington state, that was published online and birthed a verb in certain media quarters. “To snow fall” became newsroom shorthand for embellishing prose with embedded video, parallax scrolling, and other production-intensive forms of jazz hands.
Those who had read Branch’s three-part Times feature on Boogaard, published nearly seven months after his death and on which Boy on Ice is based, knew that the author didn’t need the frills. The series, like the book, highlights the unique power that careful journalism, combined with the unique lens a curious outsider brings to a culture, can add to a story that is already powerful on its own. Before writing his articles on Boogaard, Branch had only reported briefly on hockey, as a reporter in Colorado. Perhaps because he was neither personally invested in nor beholden to hockey’s culture, the story he tells offers a clear picture of a problem at the sport’s root.
“Nobody dreams of playing hockey so that they can hurt other people,” Branch writes at the outset. “It just goes that way.” So it did for Boogaard, whose size marked him early on as a fighter, and who embraced the role as he made his way through junior hockey, bouncing from the Pats to the Prince George Cougars to the Medicine Hat Tigers, then to the East Coast Hockey League and the American Hockey League before arriving in the NHL with the Wild. In the early stages of his career, he was the proverbial first guy to arrive at the rink, last guy to leave, becoming a good skater for a man his size even as it was apparent that he would only get to the NHL via his fists. He was a popular teammate, known for his surprising gentleness off the ice and his guardianship on it, fighting dozens upon dozens of times. Chosen by the Wild in the seventh round of the NHL 2001 draft, the now 6-foot-7 left winger reached the league in 2005 and soon became one of its most feared combatants. In his first season, he scored two goals, marking two-thirds of his career total; in his second, he threw a right uppercut that shattered the cheek of Anaheim Ducks enforcer Todd Fedoruk, nearly ending his rival’s NHL career.
As Branch traces Boogaard’s career arc and personal life (his two long-term relationships did not end well), he varies his angles so as to foreshadow the underlying causes of the big man’s death. He pulls back to note, for example, the sporting world’s dawning awareness, at the time Boogaard entered the NHL, of the dangers of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease caused by repeated blows, including seemingly minor blows, to the head. These impacts, which occur in hockey “from the youngest ages,” can lead to early-onset dementia.
After Boogaard’s early successes, his NHL career was marked by a litany of injuries, which often kept him out of the lineup. In addition to concussions, there were strained muscles and tendons, a repeatedly broken nose, broken teeth, and, most especially, a bad back. With these injuries came prescription drugs – many, many, many prescription drugs. Boogaard’s father provided Branch with records detailing the calculator-frying tallies of the drugs his son was being prescribed by various team doctors: codeine, Ambien, OxyContin, Percoset, Vicodin, and more. Twenty games into Boogaard’s third season, he had been fed more drugs than he’d received in his first two years combined; within a few months of his fourth season, more than in the previous three combined. As he bounced in and out of the lineup, his drug tolerance rising, he began supplementing prescribed drugs with black-market ones. In the summer of 2009, he entered rehab.
Boogaard recovered well enough to play 57 games (but fight a mere nine times) for the Wild in 2009-2010, after which he was signed to a four-year, $6.5-million contract by the Rangers. That season proved to have been the vestibule to his own personal hell. The next season, he got into a series of injury-inducing fights, the last of which, against the Ottawa Senators’ Matt Carkner on December 9, resulted in the rebreaking of Boogaard’s nose, the reinjuring of his shoulder, and a concussion. It was his last NHL game. In the days that followed, he developed severe post-concussion syndrome, holing himself up in his darkened apartment for long stretches, swallowing pain pills by the handful and sending text messages by the thousand. In a pair of particularly heartbreaking scenes, Branch describes the giant weeping alongside a friend in Central Park, then again later at home, in his father’s arms.
Boogaard’s condition improved enough for him to get back on the ice briefly, then to enter another failed stint in rehab. After leaving, he flew to Minnesota, his adoptive home, where, after taking at least one Percocet during a night of partying with his brother, he lay down on his bed and died. An autopsy of his brain revealed CTE more advanced than the pathologist had ever seen in a 28-year-old.
Though Branch never uses the word “complicity,” his presentation of the facts raises many questions about who bears responsibility for the death. Boogaard was in many ways the clear captain of his own ship – he once held a hockey-fighting camp for youth and declared, after signing with the Rangers, that he wouldn’t trade what he did for the world. But each prescription written, each failure of the NHL’s porous substance-abuse program comes to read, at best, like gross enablement.
More damning still is the cool and non-judgmental picture the author paints of hockey’s reckless disregard for its toughest, most vulnerable players. In recounting Boogaard’s fights, Branch includes not just the old one-two, but the announcers’ excitement, the video editors’ tale-of-the-tape graphics, the fans’ consistent approval. This cultural embrace is one thing when it’s of men who are over 18 and making their own choices as adults, quite another when it’s of boys at the sport’s junior echelons.
The pathologist who diagnosed Boogaard’s CTE acknowledged in her report that it was impossible to know the extent to which the disease had influenced his addictions and struggles, but the facts paint a suggestive picture: from the time he was a teenager, Derek Boogaard participated in a sport that encouraged him to incur and deliver trauma to the head, and that rewarded him for doing so; at the time he died, his brain bore the evidence. Junior-hockey fans who accept the suggestion are left with a dilemma: can we, in good conscience, pay money for entertainment that encourages minors to stand toe-to-toe with the pure intent to concuss? I wonder why we’re even allowed to under the law.
If change comes to hockey, it will not be from the top. The NHL has been disinclined to pursue any alterations to its rules permitting fighting; Branch quotes commissioner Gary Bettman speaking about concussions in terms that make him sound like an oil executive denying scientific consensus on climate change. Nor have the CHL’s constituent leagues, despite some debate in recent years, made any serious moves to curtail fighting.
There has been one development on this front since Boogaard’s death, though, that might have made a difference to his life. In October, 2013, the Canadian Junior Hockey League voted to make ejection, rather than a trip to the penalty box, the automatic punishment for fighting. The ban, which goes into force this season, covers the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and its teams – among them, the Melfort Mustangs.
Jeremy Keehn is the news and business editor of NewYorker.com.Report Typo/Error