Professional hockey says fighters keep the game honest. Right or wrong, it no longer matters. Not after the accidental overdose of Derek Boogaard of Saskatchewan. To be dead at 28 is too high a price to pay.
This week, we learned that an Alzheimer’s-like disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was found in Mr. Boogaard’s brain, after his death last May, by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. This disease is linked to depression, substance abuse, behavioural changes and mood disorders.
His cognitive deterioration was not a secret. “In the fall of 2009, a doctor asked Boogaard to name every word he could think of that began with the letter R. He could not come up with any,” John Branch of the New York Times reported in a stunning 16,000-word series on his life and death. A neurologist asked Mr. Boogaard to estimate how many times his mind went dark after being hit on the head – a sign of a concussion. Hundreds, he replied.
Yet teams lined up to bid for his services when his contract with the Minnesota Wild was up. He was 6’8’’ and 257 pounds. Last year, the New York Rangers signed Mr. Boogaard to a four-year, $6.5-million contract. For his physical pain, he was prescribed painkillers. Toward the end, he would sob in his father’s arms. He died accidentally from a combination of booze and painkillers. If he had lived, the medical experts from the centre said, dementia would have overtaken him in middle age.
The National Hockey League’s commissioner, Gary Bettman, says it is premature to reach any conclusions based on Mr. Boogaard’s CTE. He’s wrong. It is a question of risk. Bare-knuckled fighting may lead to concussions, brain damage and CTE. CTE is associated with a sharp decline in brain function.
Why would Canadians allow their boys to grow up to be hockey fighters? (Most fighters are Canadian.) Is it worth the destruction of their brain?
The price of fighting is catastrophic and is borne by the fighters nearly alone. It is too high for his parents who did everything they could to support him in minor hockey because they thought it was good for him. It’s too high for the fans, who loved Mr. Boogaard with that special adulation that fans reserve for the most fearless, willing fighters.
And it’s too high for the game of hockey, from junior through the pros. Hockey was complicit in Mr. Boogaard’s death. The game gave him its dirtiest job, paid him beyond his dreams for it, and allowed it to kill him.