The Shame of The State of Hockey

Dec 06

Last May 14, the day after he was found dead in bed in his Minneapolis apartment, a 28-year-old victim of a drug-and-alcohol overdose, I asked in this space whether hockey had killed Derek Boogaard. But the hockey “enforcer” and fan favorite for the Minnesota Wild never pulled his punches, while I was keeping my real question on the down-low.

The real question, for the State of Hockey and its many hockey fans, is more troubling:

Did Minnesota, and the Wild, kill Derek Boogaard?

KILL HIM, BOOGEYMAN!

It’s hard not to acknowledge that the Wild bear large responsibility for Boogaard’s nightmarish decline into a life of painkillers, concussions, self-doubt and brain damage after reading the devastating three-part series on Boogaard that appeared in The New York Times this week. The powerful series, by John Branch, was called Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.  And while it deals at length with Boogaard’s childhood in Saskatchewan, his family, hockey culture and his final year of pro hockey with The New York Rangers, the core of the lengthy 15,000-word series (amplified with interactive features and videos) leads to one unmistakable conclusion:

Derek Boogaard was badly let down by the team that drafted him in 2001, presided over his transformation into a skilled fighter, turned him into a “star” and a profitable commodity (the team is still selling No. 24 Boogaard replica jerseys), covered up for his concussions and surgeries, fed him on a heavy diet of painkillers, watched him become a stumbling, glazed-eyed, addicted shadow of his former self and — when he had become an obvious time-bomb — dumped him, letting him go to the Rangers, where Boogaard quickly unraveled after only a couple of months in the glare of Madison Garden, disappearing back into the hockey netherworld of treatment and denial, to die in Minneapolis after a night of sad boozing.

Predictably, officials of the Wild did not cooperate with The Times or respond to its reporters’ questions. The Rangers also refused to comment on the series, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman might have been wiser if he had followed the example of his teams and kept his mouth shut. Instead, he proved in the interview he gave to The Times that he is a huckster and a liar, denying that there is any definitive link between repeated head injuries and the debilitating brain disease called CTE that has been found in the brains of many pro athletes after their death and which was discovered, in Boogaard’s brain, to have been so advanced that scientists say he would have faced a sad and crippled middle-age — if he had lived past 28. Bettman also told The Times that “there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming appetite or desire” among the league and its fans to stop the carnage.

Nero said the same thing when he was asked to stop feeding Christians to the lions. Gary Bettman is a disgrace.

Boogaard's Brain: Damaged by "Hockey Disease" and Denial

The Times may not have ever become interested in Boogaard if he had not been, briefly, a New York Ranger. But the newspaper’s series about a tragedy that unfolded mostly in Minnesota stands in marked contrast to the lack of in-depth scrutiny the story has received in Minnesota, where the Wild has kept mum, the media tsk-ed tsk-ed and moved on, and the obligatory “tributes” to one of hockey’s greatest “tough guys” have been awkward, to say the least. At the Wild’s Nov. 27 Boogaard tribute, the team played a four-minute video in a hushed arena that showed Boogaard smiling and skating and throwing legal checks and playing with children but did not show him throwing a single punch — the dirty job he did for the Wild and which took him to an early grave. Something is rotten in The State of Hockey, and we all know it: We can’t even watch tapes of Boogaard doing his thing.

The Boogaard series is a disturbing indictment of the way No. 24 was managed by the Wild.

The Wild sold Boogaard jerseys at the tribute, saying some of the money would go to charity. But the team stone-walled The Times, which reported: The Wild would not answer questions about the video. They also refused to address specific questions about Boogaard’s medical care, concussions, addiction and rehabilitation, or the availability of drugs through team doctors. Requests to speak with General Manager Chuck Fletcher and the medical director, Dr. Sheldon Burns, were refused.

The Wild owes Minnesota and its fans better than that. And we deserve the truth.

Among The Times’ revelations: The Wild had no system for regulating medical prescriptions, and Boogaard got drugs from virtually all of the team’s physicians. That kind of scene is deserving of investigation, maybe even by a grand jury. So does the downtown Minneapolis nightclub scene, with its drugs and drinking,  a culture that dovetailed with the locker room pill culture.

Said The Times:

In one three-month stretch of the 2008-9 season with the Wild, Boogaard received at least 11 prescriptions for painkillers from eight doctors — including at least one doctor for a different team, according to records gathered by his father, Len Boogaard. Combined, the prescriptions were for 370 tablets of painkillers containing hydrocodone, typically sold under brand names like Vicodin.

Derek Boogaard increasingly wanted more pills. He became adept at getting them.

In downtown Minneapolis, Boogaard’s favorite hangout was Sneaky Pete’s, a sports bar that becomes a raucous club on weekend nights. Stripper poles are erected on the dance floor, and a throbbing beat escapes beyond the velvet rope out front. Boogaard was a regular.

Young men fueled with alcohol begged Boogaard to punch them, so they could say they survived a shot from the Boogeyman. People bought him drinks. They took pictures of him and with him. They chanted his name. When the attention got overbearing, Boogaard escaped behind the bar, where his bobblehead likeness sat on a shelf.

“He was like Norm in ‘Cheers,’ ” said Stewart Hafiz, whose family owns the bar.

And Boogaard often bought painkillers, thousands of dollars’ worth at a time, from someone he knew there, according to Boogaard’s brother Aaron.

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 State of Hockey, it turns out, is not just about school boys and storied tournaments. It is also about the meat-grinder of professional sports, the lies we tell, the delusions we hold, the complicity of media that profit by pandering to pro sports and the ugly reality of a fan base that stood and cheered like crazy for every blow to the head that The Boogeyman gave and received, screaming for blood and laughing at the slow destruction of a man child who loved a game he wasn’t good enough to play without his fists. And his drugs.

If there is a hopeful side to this story, it is that the shocking finding by scientists at Boston University of the devastation that was done to Boogaard’s brain may stand as a lasting monument. If the NHL comes to its senses, if the law starts taking assaults seriously whether they happen on the ice or outside the arena, if Gary Bettman gets booted, as he richly deserves and if the league and its teams — including The Wild — stop passing out pills and denying the brutality of the “enforcer” system — perhaps the life and death of Derek Boogaard ultimately will take on the significance it deserves.

Until then, it remains just a very sad story, one that should have never happened.

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