Krysten Boogaard stands at the biggest moment of her young basketball career, on the verge of making the national Canadian women’s team, which itself is on the verge of clinching a berth at this summer’s London Olympics.
But as the 24-year-old, 6-foot-5 centre competes to reach the Olympics, she wrestles with much more than the typical young athlete: It was a year ago that her older brother, hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard, died at age 28 of an overdose of alcohol and prescription painkillers.
“I feel like he’s always watching me,” Ms. Boogaard said after practice this week in a quiet gym in Abbotsford, an hour east of Vancouver. “He was always one of my role models growing up, working his ass off regardless of what other people said about him as a hockey player. I know that he would be proud.”
Derek Boogaard, who played most of his career for the Minnesota Wild, was a popular fighter in the National Hockey League, and research on his brain after he died revealed startling findings: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition caused by brain trauma such as concussions. To see it in a person so young was a shock. The news made Mr. Boogaard a face of violence in hockey and the devastating long-term implications of repeated blows to the head.
While Mr. Boogaard struggled with addiction to prescription drugs in his last years, his sister draws strength from memories of his tenacity, the fighting spirit that got him to the NHL. Krysten Boogaard is now one of 16 women in contention for a dozen spots on the roster, to be decided in the next several weeks.
The team has trained in Abbotsford this month and plays exhibition games against China this week, in preparation for a crucial Olympic qualifying tournament in Turkey in June, when Canada has a good shot to make it to London. Ms. Boogaard is among the younger, less experienced players, but her height – just two inches shorter than Derek– is an asset, as she is the second-tallest on the squad.
“Just through the experiences that I know he’s been through, that helps me on my journey,” Ms. Boogaard said. “Obviously, it’s difficult at times.”
For the Boogaard family, the ache of Derek’s death remains raw. Time heals – but only a year has passed. The cut of death was deep.
“We’re still all struggling,” said Joanne Boogaard, Krysten’s mother. “A year has gone by”– her voice cracks – “and it doesn’t get any better.”
Joanne Boogaard this week flew to Vancouver from the family home in Regina to watch her daughter play. She’s made such trips before – to France, where Krysten played her first pro season last winter in Nice, and to the University of Kansas, where Krysten was a force.
“Derek would have been so proud,” Joanne Boogaard said. “That’s what’s driving Krysten, he’s a little guardian angel on her shoulder. I’m so proud. She’s trying out for the Olympic team. How much higher can she go, than to play for Canada? She’s one of the younger ones but we’re all crossing our fingers and hoping she makes it.”
The Boogaards haven’t taken an advocacy stance after Derek’s death, such as calling for changes like a fighting ban in hockey. Joanne’s feelings are conflicted.
“I don’t know how to say, ‘Should it be [banned]’ because that’s what my son did, and that’s what killed him in the end. I told Derek every game, ‘Don’t fight.’ He would go, ‘Aw, mom, I’m going to be okay.’ It was his job. But this has definitely opened a lot of eyes.”
Krysten wants fans to better understand the costs of perceived entertainment.
“From all the evidence, it’s proven to be unhealthy for the athletes,” Ms. Boogaard said. “And fans should want what’s best for the athletes. When a fight’s breaking out you don’t think about those things.”
Opening up has helped. The family spoke intimately for a lengthy New York Times series that appeared last December. “It was good,” Krysten said. “To give those experiences and accounts, to let other people understand a little bit. Nobody really will fully understand.”
Talking about the experience has helped carry Ms. Boogaard through this month. A year ago, Derek Boogaard was on leave from substance-abuse rehabilitation when he died, and was planning to attend his younger sister’s graduation from university. Instead, Krysten missed her graduation and eulogized her brother at his funeral in Regina on a rainy Saturday.
Krysten has welcomed the embrace of her teammates, a close, spirited and fun group of women – “a second family,” said head coach Allison McNeill. “I notice more of a soulfulness to her,” Ms. McNeill said.
The Canadian women’s basketball team hasn’t been to the Olympics since 2000. Today, after years of losses, the team, like Ms. Boogaard, is on the cusp. She’s focused, underpinned by the inspiration of her big brother.
“When I’m on the basketball court,” she said, “it’s like, ‘This is what I’m doing. I’m doing basketball right now.’ I’m focused, for myself, and for my team. I’m here to work my ass off for my team and reach those goals – because it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us.”