Derek Boogaard was listed as a forward, but it’s more appropriate to call him an enforcer. The 6-foot-7, 265-pounder from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan would never be confused with the National Hockey League’s tops scorers. To keep his job, he felt he had to swing his fists — and he did just that.
Boogaard racked up 66 fighting majors in his six years in the pros, and totalled more than 600 penalty minutes in 287 NHL regular-season and playoff games with the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers. He scored three goals.
In what would be his final season in 2010-11, Boogaard played only 22 games and missed the rest of the season due to a concussion and a shoulder injury; during this time, he took prescribed painkillers and sleeping pills. He died on May 13, 2011 at the age of 28, with the cause of death being attributed to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol. An autopsy revealed Boogaard — known during his playing career as the “Boogeyman” — had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease most closely associated with multiple concussions.
Now Boogaard’s family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the league, among others. In announcing the eight-count, 55-page lawsuit in Chicago last Friday, the attorney pulled no punches. “The NHL drafted Derek Boogaard because it wanted his massive body to fight in order to enhance ratings, earnings and exposure,” William T. Gibbs said. “Fighting night after night took its expected toll on Derek’s body and mind. To deal with the pain, he turned to the team doctors, who dispensed pain pills like candy.
“To distill this to one sentence: you take a young man, you subject him to trauma, you give him pills for that trauma, he becomes addicted to those pills, you promise to treat him for that addiction, and you fail.”
Of course, there is the issue of Boogaard’s contribution to the situation. He chose to play in the NHL as an enforcer and to use his size and fists instead of being a scorer or a defensive specialist. That might seem trite, especially given Boogaard’s physical attributes and apparent skill level, but the NHL did not force him to become the player that he was. Perhaps he could have turned himself into another type of player, or he could have left the game altogether and done something else with his life.
An editorial in the National Post points out that ultimately, it was Boogaard’s decision to expose himself (and others) to the dangers of being repeatedly hit in the head and face with bare knuckles. It’s a sad — and, apparently, deadly — way to make a living.