The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer: Five Critical Issues Raised by the New York Times’ Series on Derek Boogaard
December 13, 2011 8 Comments
If you have not yet read John Branch’s New York Times series on former NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, it should immediately jump to the top of your reading list. Boogaard passed away this past summer from an accidental overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. In a compelling and upsetting three-part series, Branch offers a detailed narrative of Boogaard’s life and tragic death and links this individual story up to broader social and cultural issues in hockey.
Five issues stood out to me from Branch’s reporting, and I discuss each of these below. As what follows is a particularly long post, here is a brief outline of the five issues I discuss:
- This story is not really about Derek Boogaard
- The social pressures to fight start as a teenager
- Many players abandon other career/life possibilities to pursue the dream of pro hockey
- Fighting takes an extremely damaging physical and mental toll
- The structures of junior and professional hockey are complicit in the damage caused by fighting
I strongly urge you to read Branch’s excellent articles, but I hope also that you find my commentary on his brilliant reporting to be interesting and of value. After the jump, my thoughts on five of the key issues raised by Branch:
1. While this is about Derek Boogaard, it’s not really about Derek Boogaard
Branch writes compellingly and sensitively about Derek Boogaard, painting an impressive portrait of the enforcer as a human being by describing his childhood years through to his final days. Despite this excellent character sketch, and the obvious fact that these articles centre around Boogaard, in a major sense these pieces are not about Derek Boogaard at all—rather, they are about the broader social and cultural forces that shaped his life choices and actions. In this sense, Boogaard is somewhat of an Everyman in Branch’s portrait of hockey fighters: a tough, small-town, working class Canadian kid who overcame incredible odds to live his dream of playing NHL hockey, yet who ultimately succumbed to the various pressures of this role and had his life end in tragedy.
Branch skillfully incorporates anecdotes about and quotations from other hockey enforcers that help to broaden the scope of his reportage beyond Boogaard, yet maintains a narrative focus on the late enforcer that illuminates in great depth the trials and tribulations facing countless hundreds of Canadian teenagers who embrace pugilism as their only ticket to realizing their dream professional hockey. The point being that while the entirety of Boogaard’s story is unique, many of his experiences are or have been shared by many other hockey players. Thus, while it would be dangerous to assume that every would-be enforcer will go through the exact same experiences as Boogaard or will share the same fate, his story nonetheless points to the wide range of mental and physical health challenges that such individuals will likely encounter.
2. The social pressures to fight start as a teenager
Don Cherry is fond of saying “Two good guys going at it, nobody getting hurt, nothing wrong with that!” Cherry is right that many fights in adult hockey games do not result in injury (although this is often not the case) and that they are usually mutually agreed-upon engagements between consenting adults. However, what such a viewpoint ignores is the process that players must go through to get to the career and life stage where they can assume the role of enforcer in an adult hockey context. And as Branch points out, professional fighters have usually participated in dozens or hundreds of fights before they even reach the professional ranks. Consider this account of Boogaard’s first training camp with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, a camp at which he would have to impress the coaches or else see his hockey dreams likely come crashing down:
As Boogaard taped his stick in the hallway . . . he was approached by one of the few players bigger than he was. Boogaard had never seen him before. He did not know his name.
“I’m going to kill you,” the player said.
The scrimmage began. A coach tapped Boogaard on the shoulder. Boogaard knew what it meant. He clambered over the waist-high wall and onto the ice.
He felt a tug on the back of his jersey. It was time.
The players flicked the padded gloves from their hands. They removed the helmets from their heads. They raised their fists and circled each other. They knew the choreography that precedes the violence.
Boogaard took a swing with his long right arm. His fist smacked the opponent’s face and broke his nose. Coaches and scouts laughed as they congratulated Boogaard.
He was 16.
As this account shows, fighting acumen is a prized ability in Canadian junior hockey. Branch reveals that Boogaard’s opportunity to try out with the Pats only occurred because the team happened to have Western Hockey League (WHL) scouts attending a game in which the 15 year-old attacked another team’s bench:
Melfort was losing badly, and 15-year-old Derek Boogaard was suddenly inside the other team’s bench, swinging away at opposing players. . . . Players scattered like spooked cats, fleeing over the wall or through the open gates.
“He had gone ballistic,” [Derek’s father] Len Boogaard said. “It was something I hadn’t seen before.” . . .
There were about 10 scouts. . . . Among them were two men representing the Regina Pats — the chief scout, Todd Ripplinger, and the general manager, Brent Parker. “All the Western League scouts’ jaws are down like this,” Parker said. His mouth fell open at the memory.
Ripplinger and Parker scribbled a note saying that the Regina Pats wanted to add Derek Boogaard to their roster. . . .
The reaction of the scouts that winter’s night in Melfort made it clear what to expect when Boogaard went to his first W.H.L. training camp in Regina in the fall. If Boogaard wanted to advance in hockey, he would need his fists.
These two anecdotes point to a disturbing trend in Canadian hockey: that fighting is a necessary skill for many teenage boys who wish to even get a chance to try out for a team in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL, of which the WHL is one of three regional leagues). Once on a CHL team, however, the pressure to fight intensifies, as a less skilled player quickly learns that he is on the roster only to fight and that he expendable and replaceable if he does not succeed in this pugilistic role.
Branch explains that after playing in one WHL game and losing his first fight, Boogaard was cut from the Pats and sent to a lower division team. He quit that team after being benched by the coach. After making the Pats the following season, Boogaard was traded to the Prince George Cougars after losing a fight. In Prince George he fulfilled the wishes of coaches and the thousands of rabid fans who loudly cheered on-ice scraps, but his season ended with a broken jaw. These are the tribulations that a would-be enforcer must endure in pursuit of his NHL dream.
As Branch points out, fighting is not only a relevant skill on the ice—it is also seen as a way for junior teams’ to boost gate receipts:
[CHL] teams are not affiliated with N.H.L. teams, so player development is less a goal than profit. Fighting, an accepted and popular part of the game, is seen as a way to attract fans.
In other words, the financial and professional motivations of adults serve both to legitimize adolescent fighting as an acceptable activity and to pressure junior players to engage in the practice. As a result, it is clear that any less-skilled 16 year-old who hopes of playing junior hockey is likely to face extreme pressure to fight willingly and frequently. He will accept this role or have his hockey career halted. This is certainly an area that deserves extreme ethical scrutiny.
3. The slim chance of a career in professional in hockey is alluring enough for some men to abandon other career/life possibilities and put all their eggs in one basket
One of the tragic aspects of Boogaard’s story is that he was so intent on becoming a professional hockey player that he devoted everything he has to this goal:
In eighth grade, Boogaard had an assignment: Describe what you want to do for a living. He wrote that he wanted to play in the N.H.L., envisioning himself among the class of gritty players with scoring punch. . . .
The teacher asked Boogaard for an alternate plan. Boogaard said he did not have one. Their ensuing debate landed Boogaard in detention.
“He didn’t have a Plan B,” Len Boogaard said. “Plan A was to play hockey. There was no backup plan.”
And what if hockey did not work out?
“I have no idea,” his father said. And neither did anyone else.
It is hard to believe that Boogaard’s story is unique in this regard. As Branch notes,
[CHL] players, ages 16 to 20, have their expenses paid, receive a small stipend for spending money and can earn scholarships to Canadian colleges. Most harbor hopes of playing professionally. On a typical roster of two dozen, a few will advance to the National Hockey League.
Despite these low odds and poor material compensation, the professional dream is clearly a strong pull for many junior hockey players. And in Boogaard’s case, it meant that his fists were a legitimate ticket, and his only potential entry point, to the NHL. He was an extreme long shot to even become a WHL regular, let alone to make the NHL. But the Minnesota Wild took a chance on him in the seventh round of the 2001 draft, and he fought his way through the minor leagues to the NHL.
Boogaard was one of the few who successfully navigated this path to reach the NHL. But what happens to the countless would-be enforcers who abandon educational opportunities, who put their body through a punishing routine, and who live and work in a hockey culture of uncertainty, risk, and violence? Branch provides one possible answer by highlighting the current career trajectory of Derek Boogaard’s brother, Aaron:
He is trying to revive his own hockey career. . . . Last season, in 53 games with the Laredo (Tex.) Bucks of the Central Hockey League, Aaron Boogaard had two goals and 172 penalty minutes. He fought 20 times. Now 25, he plays for the C.H.L.’s Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees in Hidalgo, Tex. . . . Aaron fought six times in a recent 10-game stretch. . . .
His mother has asked him to quit hockey. But he has no Plan B, either.
“I mean, honestly, what else am I going to do?” Aaron said.
“What else am I going to do?” For young men who spend their formative adolescent and young adult years chasing an illusive dream of NHL glory, at the expense of health and other personal development opportunities, this is a question with no easy answer.
Adding to the tragedy of Derek Boogaard’s demise, Branch paints a portrait of the player as a kind, sensitive, and caring human being. Picked upon as a child, Boogaard later became a protector to stop others suffering the same fate. Teammates and fans remember his engaging manner, his commitment to charity events, and his inability to turn away requests for autographs. His violent on-ice persona was always incongruous with his off-ice actions. Surely, given his interpersonal gifts and desire to prevent bullying, there could have been many career alternatives for Boogaard – teacher, counselor, or youth sports coach come immediately to mind, but I am sure there are many other professional roles in which he could have excelled and touched other lives.
Sadly, by putting all his eggs in the basket of professional hockey, Boogaard closed off the routes toward such opportunities, dropping out of high school and focusing single-mindedly on his hockey career. Again, while Boogaard’s specific circumstances are unique, there are undeniable structural forces at work that suggest that many other would-be professional hockey players adopt a similar all-or-nothing approach to their hockey careers.
4. Fighting, and being a fighter, takes an extremely damaging physical and mental toll
While Branch does not suggest that every hockey fighter will suffer the exact same mental illness or level of addiction as Boogaard, his reporting nonetheless offers a cautionary tale about the damage that can occur because of the unique pressures of being an enforcer in the high-stress worlds of junior and professional hockey. Furthermore, the physical damage incurred by the role – while doubtlessly variable depending on the opponents a player faces and number of fights in which he takes part – can be more widely, though still cautiously, assumed to be similar to what other enforcers endure. Many of the anecdotes relayed by Branch indicate the physical toll that Boogaard suffered as a direct result of fighting:
In March 2000, during a home game against Tri-City, Boogaard was hit in the face by an enforcer named Mike Lee. The two were ushered to the penalty box.
“I sat in the box for the five mins and I couldn’t close my mouth,” Boogaard later wrote. “My teeth wouldn’t line up.”
Boogaard went to the hospital, where his jaw was wired shut. The Cougars put him on a liquid diet and sent him home to Regina.
Similarly, Branch describes an NHL fight in which Boogaard suffered a broken nose:
King blindly threw three right hands that punched the air. A fourth bashed Boogaard in the nose and broke it.
More than anything, Boogaard hated getting hit on the nose. It had been surgically repaired less than a year before. . . . Boogaard headed to the locker room. He missed the next five games.
Doubtlessly other fighters suffer similar, if not identical, medical issues as a result of fighting. Less clear is the consistent link between fighting and brain damage. While brain damage has not been conclusively linked to hockey fighting, all medical research points toward it as a likely outcome of absorbing so many punches to the head. As Branch explains:
Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as C.T.E., a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease. It is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It can be diagnosed only posthumously, but scientists say it shows itself in symptoms like memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, even addiction. . . .
It did not take long for Dr. Ann McKee to see the telltale brown spots near the outer surface of Boogaard’s brain — the road signs of C.T.E. She did not know much about Boogaard other than that he was a 28-year-old hockey player. And the damage was obvious. . . .
“To see this amount? That’s a ‘wow’ moment,” McKee said as she pointed to magnified images of Boogaard’s brain tissue. “This is all going bad.”
The degenerative disease was more advanced in Boogaard than it was in Bob Probert, a dominant enforcer of his generation, who played 16 N.H.L. seasons, struggled with alcohol and drug addictions and died of heart failure at age 45 in 2010.
And finally, Boogaard suffered from addiction and, it would seem, depression:
He gobbled the pills by the handful — eight or more OxyContins at a time, multiple people said, at a cost of around $60 each — chewing them to hasten their time-release effect. The line between needing drugs for pain and wanting them for celebration blurred. . . .
The fog of Boogaard’s postconcussion syndrome slid into a hazy shade of loneliness. Early in the season, a stream of friends had gone to New York to see him play and take in the sights.
But with Boogaard out of the lineup, the number of visitors waned. Boogaard grew desperate for company. His January cellphone bill needed 167 pages to detail calls and text messages, some to people who had not heard from him in years. February’s bill consumed 222 pages. It listed 13,724 text messages.
So what does Boogaard’s sad narrative of a damaged body and mind tell us? It tells us that fighting can take an extreme physical toll on a hockey player, and that engaging regularly in fisticuffs is essentially a guarantee of recurring injury. It tells us that serious brain damage is a likely result of repeated blows to the head, such as those regularly suffered by a hockey enforcer. And it tells us that the unique pressures of being an enforcer in professional hockey—the nervous anticipation of upcoming fights, the fear that losing fights will mean losing one’s job, the knowledge that fans’ adoration is contingent upon continued pugilistic success, the pigeonholing as a fighter who has no chance to develop other hockey skills, the easy availability of painkillers as an escape from physical and mental anguish—can push a person toward addiction.
The NHL may contentedly deny the health risks of fighting, but the mounting evidence—including, prominently, Boogaard’s story—would suggest that the league remains dangerously and willfully ignorant of the human toll of hockey fighting.
5. The structures of CHL and NHL hockey are complicit in the physical and social damage caused by fighting
This is perhaps the most important revelation from Branch’s journalistic masterpiece. The very structures of junior and professional hockey—which so many players, parents, fans, agents, owners, managers, and members of the media take for granted—enable, condone, and glorify the damaging practice of hockey fighting.
Branch’s reporting is certainly damning toward the NHL. Aside from the league’s casual tolerance for violence in pursuit of greater popularity and profit, there are two specific points that jump out from Boogaard’s story. Firstly, the NHL medical system is dangerously unregulated, allowing Boogaard easy access to excessive amounts of painkillers, to which he eventually became addicted:
Most N.H.L. teams have about 10 affiliated doctors — specialists and dentists with practices of their own. Boogaard had learned that there was no system to track who was prescribing what.
In one three-month stretch of the 2008-9 season with the Wild, Boogaard received at least 11 prescriptions for painkillers from eight doctors.
While it is certainly possible that Boogaard would have become addicted to other substances if he did not have access to painkillers, and while Branch notes that he found alternative sources for pills once his teams eventually regulated his prescriptions, Branch’s reporting makes it clear that the NHL’s system of drug dispensing enabled his addiction at various stages.
Secondly, the NHL refuses to take proactive measures in light of mounting evidence suggesting the potential physical and mental damage caused by fighting:
“There isn’t a lot of data, and the experts who we talked to, who consult with us, think that it’s way premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point,” N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Because we’re not sure that any, based on the data we have available, is valid.”
The researchers at Boston University say that C.T.E. is a nascent field of study, but that there is little debate that the disease is caused by repeated blows to the head. They said that the N.H.L. was not taking the research seriously.
But the league has shown little interest in ending on-ice fighting. The message is decidedly mixed: outlaw an elbow to the head during play, but allow two combatants to stop the game and try to knock each other out with bare-knuckle punches to the head.
In other words, the NHL is awaiting conclusive evidence of the link between fighting and CTE before it even thinks about halting on-ice fisticuffs. This is a classic case of downstream thinking: reacting to a crisis once it occurs, instead of taking early (upstream) measures to prevent it from occurring in the first place. As long as the NHL stands idly by, it remains complicit in the damage caused by fighting in its league.
The CHL is similarly complicit in the social and physical damage resulting from hockey fighting. I took the junior hockey system to task when commenting on a story about Boogaard on Hockey Wilderness, a Minnesota Wild blog, and I feel my (admittedly moralizing, rather than logically argued) argument is worth quoting here:
Why in the hell is fighting allowed in junior hockey? Why are 16 year-old kids asked to put their bodies and brains on the line so that some adults can make money and other adults can get drunk and cheer them on while they fight? If NHL players want to consent to a fight that’s one thing, but to condone and celebrate teenagers doing it while threatening their hockey dreams if they do not (i.e. coercing them) is perverse.
This issue is obviously tied up with another point that I have already addressed, namely the pressures to fight in junior hockey. One more quotation from Branch serves to illustrate the unethical and disturbing priorities of the CHL:
By the fall of 1999, the 17-year-old Boogaard had grown a few more inches, to 6-7. The Regina Pats wanted him back in training camp. Desperate to prove himself, he fought teammates 12 times in four scrimmages.
To reiterate: Boogaard fought 12 times in training camp, likely absorbing dozens of blows to the head in the process, simply to have a chance to make his WHL team. If that conduct is condoned, even encouraged, at junior hockey camps, how many teenagers and young men across Canada are trading punches, absorbing blows to the head, and suffering concussions each autumn? What support systems exist for the countless teens who fail to make the cut, despite absorbing extreme physical punishment in pursuit of their hockey dreams? And how does the linking of violent domination an opponent with an adolescent’s sense of self-worth affect him in other social areas of his life?
Obviously we cannot know the answers to these questions. But we can definitively condemn the adults who exercise such extreme power over adolescents and young adults, and yet have allowed countless players to suffer because of the normalization and glorification of on-ice violence. If we want to limit the physical and social tolls of hockey players, it may be most effective to start by reforming the unethical and damaging practice of fighting in Canadian junior hockey. The culture and rules of the CHL were a major contributor to Derek Boogaard’s life and, likely, his untimely death. As long as fighting remains in junior hockey, the league remains complicit in the damage suffered by the young men in its leagues who will absorb and dish out extreme punishment in pursuit of an illusive dream.
I will conclude with one final passage from Branch’s reportage, in which he quotes Chris Nowinski, who is co-director of the research centre at Boston University that analyzed Boogaard’s brain:
In October, Nowinski attended a Bruins game in Boston. There was a fight, and he watched quietly as thousands of people stood and cheered while the players fought.
“They are trading money for brain cells,” he said.