Derek knew no one when he arrived for the Regina Pats' training camp in 1998. The other boys, some as old as 20, eyed the tall, quiet 16-year-old with a mix of derision and anxiety. Some knew that they would be fighting him, and that their roster spot in the Western Hockey League might depend on whether they could beat him up.
Derek was given practice gear in the team's red, white, and blue colours. He got to choose a Sher-Wood stick, the nicest he had ever held. But he really wanted to know about the competition. He asked the trainer: Who do I need to watch out for?
Todd Fedoruk, the trainer said. "The Fridge." He was a 19-year-old from Redwater, Alta., fearless and sharp-tongued, a seventh-round draft choice of the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers the year before. He was a WHL veteran, having played parts of three seasons for the Kelowna Rockets before being traded to the Pats. The season before, he had seven goals, eight assists, and 200 penalty minutes, many of them in exchange for 17 fights. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he was built like a kitchen appliance.
Also, steer clear of Kyle Freadrich, the trainer said. Derek had noticed Freadrich on the roster.
Nearly 20, he was listed at 6 feet 6 inches and 254 pounds. In 112 games for the Pats the previous two seasons, he had just seven goals and eight assists, but 411 penalty minutes. He had had a team-high 25 fights the season before.On-ice workouts did not begin until the next morning, but Len wanted Derek to absorb the atmosphere. Len and Derek, now several inches taller than his father, stood in the lobby of the arena. Boys came and went.
"I kept asking Dad if we could go but he said, 'No, just wait,' " Derek wrote years later. "I think he did it to see how I would react."
Derek pointed out Fedoruk. I have to watch out for that guy, he said. Then Freadrich walked by.
"He looked like the Grim Reaper," Derek wrote. "His eyes pushed back in his head. His forehead hung over his eyes, so you could almost not see his eyes. His nose was a bit crooked and he had no front teeth."
Derek knew he was being sized up, too.
"My body wasn't showing any signs of fear but I was definetly [sic] scared in my head," he wrote.
Len secured rooms at the RCMP Depot barracks, a few miles away. They ate fast food, getting five Arby's sandwiches for five dollars.
"That night it felt like I only slept 20 minutes," Derek wrote. "I was anxious, excited, scared and I wanted to hit anything that touched the puck."
Derek arrived two hours early for the 10 o'clock start. He quietly got himself dressed and walked into the hallway. He saw another player, as tall as Derek, with "some weird Elvis-looking hair," putting tape on his hockey sticks.
"He walks up to me," Derek recalled in his notes, "gets in my face and says, 'You're [f---ing] dead! I'm going to [f---ing] kill you and you will regret coming here!' "
His name was Travis Churchman. An 18-year-old from Calgary, with a doo-wop haircut and a steel-wool patch of a beard on his chin, he was 6 foot 4 and 235 pounds. And when Derek took the ice that morning, Churchman was there, repeating the threats he had made in the hallway. The two were placed on opposite teams.
The scrimmage began. Derek was tapped by the coach to take a shift. He chased opposing players and tried to crush them with checks. He felt a tug on the back of his jersey.
"I turn around and Churchy is there, squared up and ready to go," Derek wrote.
Derek had never been in a "staged" hockey fight, the kind that did not come from a spontaneous combustion of emotion during the course of intense play. They were fights without spark, meant to attract attention or send messages. Derek had seen them countless times on highlight reels and during National Hockey League games. He knew what to do. He flicked his gloves from his hands and took off his helmet -- part of the protocol at the time, meant to reduce the pain absorbed by hands pounding plastic. He raised his fists and glided slowly in time with Churchman. Derek swung with a looping arm. His right fist crashed against Churchman's face.
It was over. Churchman skulked away, holding his hands to his face. His nose was broken. Derek left the ice exhausted, relieved, and happy. Pats coaches and scouts laughed and congratulated him, patting him on the back for doing a good job on his first day.
Beyond fighting, a liability
Derek barely played most of the most of the preseason for the Regina Pats, despite his knockout debut at training camp. The Pats moved him from defenceman to left wing, mostly because a fourth-line forward plays far fewer minutes than a defenceman, limiting Derek's time on the ice. Beyond fighting, Derek was a liability.
But coach Parry Shockey told Derek one day that he would play the next night against the Moose Jaw Warriors. Derek called his parents and told them.
Moose Jaw was an hour's drive west of Regina down the Trans-Canada Highway, and the Warriors and Pats were bitter rivals. Around the Western Hockey League, teams often did not warm up on the ice at the same time because pregame fights were common, and that was particularly true in Moose Jaw. The Moose Jaw Civic Centre, the squat, 3,000-seat arena nicknamed the "Crushed Can," was packed.
The Pats did their warmups first. Derek scanned the faces in the crowd as he circled the ice. He found his mom and dad, as well as Ryan, Aaron, and Krysten. He smiled and gave them a nod.
After last-minute preparations and speeches in the locker room, the Pats headed back to the ice for introductions.
"The place was really loud, and it felt as if the fans were on top of you," Derek wrote. "You obviously got the boos as we were walking threw [sic] the tunnel. I think that's the worst I have ever heard people yelling and screaming at the tunnel."
Fourteen-year-old Ryan took on the role of Derek's advance scout for fighting. He scanned web sites and online bulletin boards for information on players Derek might face. Against Moose Jaw, one potential foe was a 20-year-old named Kevin Lapp. He was 6 foot 7 and 250 pounds, and was the league's No. 2-rated fighter, according to at least one site, behind Regina's Kyle Freadrich.
Derek was the last of the Regina players to get a shift. "You're up," Shockey finally said. Derek clambered over the boards.
"Not even 5 seconds on the ice I get a tug," Derek wrote. "So I turn around and there was Kevin Lapp. Just standing there waiting for the gloves to drop. He said, 'Ready to go?' I said, 'Yep.' "
The fight was nothing more than a quick flurry of punches. "He absolutely destroyed me," Derek wrote.
The Boogaards had come to watch Derek play and saw only a few seconds of him getting beat up. He went to the dressing room to check his wounds. After the game, after spending a few minutes with his family, he boarded the bus and sat near the front.
"The vets were obviously in the back of the bus," Derek wrote. "But I knew those guys were making fun of me."
Shockey called Derek into his office the next day. The Pats were demoting Derek, sending him to the Regina Pat Canadians, the city's top midget team, a classification for 16- and 17-year-olds, a big step down from the WHL.
Len waited for his son outside the Agridome, the Pats' arena in Regina.
"He didn't have much to say," Derek wrote. "But later on in the car ride he said he was proud of me making it this far, when all the people in Melfort said that I wasn't any good. He said I shoved it up there [sic] asses already."
Excerpted from Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch © 2014. Published by HarperCollins Canada. All rights reserved.