MINNEAPOLIS – Joanne Boogaard watched her son Derek duke it out on the ice with other NHL tough guys for six seasons as one of the most feared enforcers in the game, a six-foot-seven brawler who was not there to skate or score, but to defend his teammates when it was called for.
“He was there protecting his teammates at all costs,” she said in a statement released by her lawyers on Monday, “but who was there to protect him?”
Joanne Boogard and other family members have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the NFL, blaming the league for brain damage her son suffered playing the game and for his addiction to prescription painkillers. Derek Boogaard died of an accidental overdose of pain medication and alcohol two years ago; his body was found on May 13, 2011.
The 28-year-old Boogaard was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain ailment that can be caused by repeated blows to the head, according to the 55-page lawsuit filed in Cook County (Ill.) Circuit Court late Friday. One of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, William Gibbs, said Monday the NHL profited from Boogaard’s physical abilities as team doctors dispensed “pain pills like candy” after he suffered repeated injuries.
“The NHL drafted Derek Boogaard because it wanted his massive body to fight in order to enhance ratings, earnings and exposure,” Gibbs said. “Then, once he became addicted to these narcotics, the NHL promised his family that it would take care of him. It failed.”
The NHL declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The allegations of the suit mirror those by thousands of former football players against the NFL. Both contend the leagues knowingly withheld information on the connection between the violent collisions in their sport and traumatic brain injury, and pushed players to play through pain, an approach that brought about long-term health issues. Gibbs’ Illinois-based law firm of Corboy and Demetrio also represents the family of Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide, and other former football players against the NFL.
Gibbs declined to draw a connection between the two cases or speculate on the prospects of a class-action lawsuit against the NHL, should one ever take shape. He said the NHL couldn’t claim ignorance about the consequences to Boogaard, who played for the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers before he died.
“The Boogaard family desperately wants meaningful change to happen so that this never happens to another kid,” Gibbs said. “What exactly that looks like and what exactly can be done is hopefully a discussion the league begins to have vis-a-vis enforcers, the distribution of pain management pills and it’s substance abuse program.”
Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, said it would be difficult for the Boogaard case to turn into the kind of massive, class-action lawsuit the NFL is facing. The NFL case deals with the broader long-term effects of concussions and other collisions on a player’s body, while the Boogaard case is narrow in scope and would need to find several other NHL families alleging wrongful death.
“I don’t believe this is the triggering case because it’s a wrongful-death case,” McCann said. “This is a little bit more of a unique scenario that wouldn’t arise probably in many other instances.”
Boogaard scored only three goals in his six-season career in 277 regular season games but took part in at least 66 on-ice fights; in the 2008-2009 season with the Minnesota Wild, he received 1,021 prescriptions from NHL team physicians, dentists, trainers and staff, the lawsuit says.
In April 2011, the NHL “knew, or should have known, that Derek Boogaard, a known drug addict, with probable brain damage due to concussive brain traumas sustained in NHL fights, was not complying with treatment (at a treatment centre),” the suit alleges.
Boogaard was under contract with the New York Rangers at the time of his death. He played his first five NHL seasons with the Minnesota Wild and one season with the Rangers after signing a four-year, $6.5 million contract with New York in July 2010.
Boogaard’s family filed a lawsuit against the NHL Players Association last September, seeking $9.8 million. The family said the union, after expressing interest in helping pursue a case against the league, missed a deadline for filing a grievance. A judge ruled the family waited too long to act and dismissed the case this spring.