The lawsuit doesn’t read nearly as well as the story, which laid bare the life of an NHL enforcer for all to see. The way John Branch wrote about Derek Boogaard in the New York Times should have been enough to cause even the most hardcore hockey fan to reconsider the peculiar role that goons play in the sport.
It was a sad and troubling tale of a kid growing up in Canada, raised to do just one thing—fight on the ice. A big, hulking man, Boogaard was so good at it that he not only made it to the NHL but had a contract with the New York Rangers paying him $1.6 million a year when he died of an overdose of painkillers two years ago at the age of 28.
Now his family is suing the league, claiming it should have done more to prevent both Boogaard’s brain injuries and his addiction to pain pills.
“He was there protecting his teammates at all costs,” his mother, Joanne, said in a statement released by her lawyers, “but who was there to protect him?”
Just how much merit the suit has will, of course, be decided in court, though it’s worth noting that it had barely been filed in Chicago when speculation began that it could be a forerunner in the NHL to the NFL’s burgeoning concussion lawsuit.
Like the story, though, the biggest value of the suit may be that it helps further expose the bizarre and dangerous culture of the enforcer in the NHL. And if that helps lead toward the elimination of hockey goons—and hockey fights—then Derek Boogaard’s survivors will have done their job.
We all know hockey players are tough. We see it every night in arenas across North America.
They don’t have to fight to prove it. And teams certainly don’t need to be paying big guys (Boogaard was 6-foot-7) big money just to have them on hand when it comes time to settle scores.
But fight they do, sometimes at a terrible cost.
Bob Probert was one of the most feared enforcers in the game, playing 16 seasons in the NHL despite struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. He died of heart failure in 2010 at just 45, and when they examined his brain they found he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), caused by taking blows to the head.
Reggie Fleming liked to bust heads too, a quality that helped him stay in the league for 20 years with seven different teams. He was also diagnosed with CTE after his death in 2009 after suffering from mental problems for years.
Boogaard wouldn’t even make a top 10 list of best fighters, but that was his job, too. According to his family’s lawsuit he was involved in 66 fights in his six-year career and he, too, was found to have CTE in a post-mortem exam.
He fought through both the pain and the haze of painkillers. While others scored goals, he bloodied faces. Sometimes it was his face that got bloodied, because that was part of the deal, too.
The NHL, meanwhile, stood by and silently applauded.
Fighting, we’re reminded time and time again, is part of the fabric of the sport, at least in North America. It’s a time-honoured tradition in the NHL, and it draws fans to the games the same way they go to NASCAR races to see crashes.
There’s a website (hockeyfights.com) devoted entirely to the not-so-fine art of fighting on skates on ice, and there are chat rooms where the best fights are analyzed and picked apart.
But times have changed. We’re finding out the long-term consequences of repeated blows to the head, and it’s not pretty. While the NFL searches—albeit belatedly—for ways to prevent concussions, the NHL still allows its players to trade punches to the head with no fear of repercussions other than a few minutes in the penalty box.
There are other troubling aspects to the Boogaard story, particularly how he was handed pills like they were Halloween candy to help deal with pain and injuries. When he was playing the 2008-09 season for the Minnesota Wild, the suit says, team doctors, dentists and others gave him over 40 prescriptions for a whopping 1,021 pills.
He took Vicodin and Oxycodone for the pain, sometimes by the handful. Then he took Ambien to sleep at night.
Finally he took too many, and was found dead in his apartment in Minneapolis.
The suit by Boogaard’s survivors says the NHL had a responsibility to keep him “reasonably safe” in his career and to help him avoid being hooked on pain pills. Others may counter that it is the player’s responsibility, not that of the league, but CTE can make the brain malfunction in many ways.
Unfortunately, no one can assure anyone they will be safe playing any sport. That’s especially true in hockey, where the combination of speed, power, hard ice and even harder pucks can take a toll on even the best players, who usually avoid fights at all costs.
But hockey can be a beautiful game at the highest level without anyone dropping their gloves. No one fights in the Olympics, yet the gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada in Vancouver was one of the greatest hockey games of all time.
It’s a violent sport, yes. But there’s no reason anymore for it to be that violent.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg