NHL player Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers died last May at the age of 28 from an overdose of drugs and alcohol. In “Punched Out: The Life And Death Of A Hockey Enforcer,” a three-part series in the New York Times this week, John Branch details the effects of Boogaard’s role as a brawler. Branch joins Bill Littlefield to discuss Boogaard’s troubled life and the latest research by doctors into his degenerative brain condition.
Branch describes the moment when Boogaard established himself as a hockey enforcer:
“He was about 14 or 15 years old. He was bigger than most of the other kids, but he was not a very skilled player at all. One day…in the middle of a game there was a big fight on the ice and next thing you knew everybody looked up and saw Derek Boogaard on the bench of the other team. He was taking swings at the other players,” Branch says. “The scouts who happened to be there…left and went to a local motel and faxed a request to the Western Hockey League, a junior league, and said, ‘We’d like to add Derek Boogaard to our roster.'”
According to Branch, Boogaard enjoyed “the art of fighting,” but often joked that he had taken too many punches to the head. During the final three years of his life, Boogaard turned to pain medication to ease his headaches, back pain, and the other effects of brutality on the ice. Eventually he came to depend on the drugs, and was sent to the NHL-NHLPA Substance Abuse Program in California twice after the 2008-09 season.
“There are some that believe that hockey players who fight are more susceptible to some of the off-ice issues such as drug addiction just because of the wear and tear of their role, both mentally and physically,” says Branch.
Following his death, Boogaard’s brain was donated to researchers at Boston University studying brain injuries. He became the fourth former NHL player found to exhibit traces of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). So far, however, researchers say there is not enough evidence to prove that enforcers are more likely to develop the condition.
“In terms of the CTE, the only thing we do know is that it is caused by repeated trauma to the head. It doesn’t even have to be at the concussion level it can be some concussive hits,” Branch explains. “We do know that it happens when you see two guys hitting each other with bare hands. We know that can’t be good for the head, and it’s not good for the cause of trying to stem off CTE.”