Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard
By John Branch
Biography, non-fiction, hockey, addiction, violence in sports.
Derek Boogaard, a.k.a. the Boogyman was the most feared man in the NHL. He was a giant on the ice, standing close to 7 feet tall on skates, and weighing in at close to 300 pounds. He had a devastating combination of size, strength, skill, and attitude that made him one of top enforcers in hockey. At one point a poll of active players voted Derek the number 2 most feared man in hockey. Georges Laraque retired after that season, and told people that it was partly because of Derek Boogaard and the damage that he could inflict. In one fight Derek shattered the cheekbone of another enforcer, Todd Fedoruk, ending his season and nearly ending Fedoruk’s career.
Off of the ice nearly every single one of his teammates and everyone that knew him well would describe Derek as friendly, shy to the point of awkward, a gentle giant and teddy bear and one of the most humble guys in hockey. The season after Todd Fedoruk returned to the ice, he was acquired by the Wild. Rather then having an tense situation in the locker room Derek and Todd became roommates and friends off the ice, relating their similar childhoods and experiences. Once he made it to the NHL Derek embraced his role not as a thug, but as a guardian for his teammates. Initially he loved representing the Wild and became a fan favorite and often attended outreach programs for the team.
Derek’s journey to the NHL wasn’t because he could skate the fastest, turn the sharpest, pass the best, or shoot the hardest. Derek never had more then 2 goals in a season, and only a handful of assists. At one point he went more then 200 games in a row without a goal. His role was that of enforcer. His coaches wanted him to distract the other team and force them to account for the biggest, toughest guy on the ice. If his coaches wanted to change the momentum of the a game Derek went out, flipped a switch and crushed someone on the other team. Or if the other team wanted the same they sent out their enforcer and Derek jumped on the ice to match them. Hockey’s “unwritten rules” of enforcers stated that they tried to match up against each other and dueling as proxies for slights against teammates.
The downside for a career built on punching people into submission is that quite frequently you get punched in return. Even with a 60% win rate (according to both hockeyfights.com and dropyourgloves.com) Derek got hit in the head a lot. Then there are also the hits from checks, going in to the boards, shoulders and elbows, sticks and the occasional puck that happen day in and day out in hockey. At one point a doctor assessing concussion symptoms asked Derek how many times he had his bell rung or went black for a second after a hit. The doctor lead with 5 or 10, Derek responded “hundreds of times.”
John Branch is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, and he clearly did the research for this book. He was sports writer for the New York Times and covering the New York sports scene when Boogaard was found dead in his apartment from an overdose. Looking into the death of a local sports figure, albeit only the local hockey team was a necessity, but after hearing that his family was donating his brain to the same clinic in Boston that has been increasingly pointing to the link between the NFL, concussions and brain damage (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE)later in life Branch was intrigued and decided to dig deeper into the life of the Boogyman. I really liked the book, but it’s a tragic tale about Derek Boogaard and the the machine that is professional sports. In the situation that he was in it is understandable that he felt the need to play every night. If he doesn’t play every night and fight and win when his team needs him too, there are hundreds of other guys who would be willing to drop their gloves in his place. So Derek laced up his skates, and played through the pain initially. Which lead to insomnia which led to taking Ambien. Eventually to take an edge off the pain he started taking painkillers, over the counter initially, but graduating to prescription painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet. One or two eventually became seven or eight at a time. 7 different team doctors all would write prescriptions without consulting each other or noting it anywhere. Even with that Derek would frequent bars and spend hundreds on alcohol and food to dull the pain more. Other people would buy him drinks or supply him with more pills. After being put into rehab programs, the staff let him leave on his own will, and “independent” third-party testers would turn a blind eye to failed test results.
Over all this book is a good read for a hockey fan, it shows how Derek grew up in the culture of hockey in northern, rural Saskatchewan and bounced from team to team trying to find a coach who believed he could contribute to the team. It shows how when given a chance Derek strengthened those teams that took him on. It also shows how the main way that he aided his team was going out on the ice and brawling. In the junior leagues in Canada and the minor leagues under the NHL. At the same time even if he was the biggest and one of the strongest, Derek was also one of the hardest working guys on his teams. Showing up early, staying late, constantly trying to improve other parts of his game. Branch shows how Derek got taken in by those that cared and believed in him and how he was fiercely loyal to those around him. Branch tells of how Derek never turned down a fan looking for an autograph or pic with “The Boogyman” and how countless nights spent at sports bars and gyms with friends and hangers on because he couldn’t say now. How he developed his addictions, to painkillers, to sleeping pills, and to alcohol, became erratic and impulsive and how those around him noticed the changes, both from addiction and in retrospect from the accruing damage to his brain from concussions and trauma. A modern sports tragedy.