Derek Boogard was known primarily as a fighter and enforcer throughout his career, from junior hockey to the pros. His fighting prowess earned him the nicknames of “Boogeyman” and “The Mountie”, and made him a favorite with fans. In 2007 he was voted as the second most intimidating player in the NHL, behind Georges Laraque, who attributed his retirement in part to a desire to avoid the serious injury Boogaard could inflict, such as the cheekbone fracture Todd Fedoruk suffered that had to be repaired with metal plates.
In May of 2011, Boogaard was granted recess to attend his sister’s graduation from the University of Kansas. He and brother Aaron Boogard went from California back to Minneapolis, planning to spend a few days together with Ryan, the other Boogaard brother. On the night of May 12, Derek went out with friends. Before they left the apartment, Aaron gave Derek a 30-mg Percocet tablet he had been holding for his brother.
Boogaard and his friends went to a steakhouse for dinner, where he consumed some mixed drinks along with his steak. They then circulated among four different bars, drinking more as they did. Boogaard probably took some more of his pills during this time.
On his return home, Derek went to the bathroom, then the bedroom, several times before his friends left. At 3 a.m., he called Aaron from the kitchen, where he had been making pancakes, several times, complaining that the bed was spinning. “He was miserable”, Aaron recalled. Derek finally stopped, apparently asleep, and Aaron went to a girlfriend’s house and did not return until the afternoon.
When he did, Derek was still in bed. Assuming his brother was still hung over, Aaron said that he was going to pick Ryan up at the airport. When he returned, Ryan, who had like his father become an RCMP officer, saw that Derek’s body wasn’t moving and that rigor mortis had set in. The two called 9-1-1 and their parents.
Firefighters who responded first declared him dead at the scene.He was a month and ten days short of his 29th birthday. An autopsy found that the cause of Boogaard’s death was an accidental overdose ofalcohol and oxycodone. “The coroner said with that mixture, he probably died as soon as he closed his eyes,” said Aaron.
His family subsequently agreed to donate his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University Medical School which studies the brains of athletes in high-contact sports. The SLI is especially interested in the degenerative brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be diagnosed after death.
Two months later, SLI doctor Ann McKee told the family in a conference call that Boogaard had indeed suffered from the ailment, with significant damage to his brain tissue. His CTE was more advanced than of another former NHL player, Bob Probert, an enforcer who had recently died at the age of 45, and likely would have led to middle-age dementia had he lived.
On July 22, 2011, Derek’s brother Aaron was charged with unlawful distribution of a controlled substance. The charge was dismissed in October 2011, at the same time he pleaded guilty to tampering with the scene of a death, a misdemeanor, since he had admitted to police that he had flushed the remaining pills down the toilet before they arrived. He was sentenced to probation and 80 hours of community service.
After his brain was removed for the SLI study, Boogaard’s body was cremated. His mother keeps the ashes in an informal shrine to her son in her home in Regina. Since Derek was so large, they are in two urns instead of one. The next season, the Wild paid tribute to Boogaard with a highlight video and moment of silence. His family was presented with flowers, a painting of Boogaard and a framed jersey at center ice.
While the circumstances of Boogaard’s death were not in doubt, it raised some questions about how it might have been prevented. Two similar deaths led to a debate over the issues faced by hockey enforcers and even their continuing role in the game, as well as the NHL’s attitude toward the health problems resulting from concussions. Boogaard’s father has also expressed concern over the way his son’s drug abuse was handled and possibly enabled by the teams he played for.
Four months after Boogaard’s death, two enforcers, Rick Rypien and the retired Wade Belak, died as well. Rypien, who was also in his late 20s; committed suicide. The 35-year-old Belak’s death was described initially as a suicide but family and friends say it was accidental. Both had also suffered from depression and substance abuse, like Boogaard.
The deaths led some former enforcers and sportswriters to question whether the league was doing enough to deal with the effects of the many concussions enforcers suffered and the stress of their role. Georges Laraque, a successful enforcer who had retired recently, said he had never liked being one despite the long career and adulation it brought him. Many other enforcers drank heavily to deal with the anxiety of knowing that they would have to fight every game. Don Cherry, a former Boston Bruins coach now a popular and controversial television commentator, responded by calling second-guessers such as Laraques “pukes” and “hypocrites”.In December The New York Times devoted a lengthy three-part series to Boogaard’s life and death that addressed many of the issues.
While the league has taken some steps to address the concussion problem, most recently in banning blindside hits to the head and requiring that players suffering head injuries be examined in a quiet room away from the bench, it is still not convinced that the CTE found in Boogaard and other players posthumously is a direct result of their hockey careers. “There isn’t a lot of data, and the experts who we talked to, who consult with us, think that it’s way premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point,” says commissioner Gary Bettman. While Boogaard admitted to a doctor that he may have had a lot more concussions than he acknowledged, even doctors aren’t sure if his CTE was purely a result of the brain trauma, due to his substance abuse, which may have played a role as well. “What’s the chicken? What’s the egg?” says Robert Stern, a brain damage expert.
Len Boogaard, now in a desk job with the RCMP, has been investigating his son’s drug use when he can, trying to see which of Derek’s many prescriptions were justified, and finding out what his contacts knew. When he visited Derek in New York a few months before his death, he was astounded to find out that his son was still getting prescriptions from team doctors despite his recent history of abuse and treatment. At one point, he alleges, Derek received a four-day advance notice of his next drug test. “We worked very closely with Derek on and off the ice to provide him with the very best possible care,” said general manager Glen Sather in a statement.