The 2011 death of NHL player Derek Boogaard from an accidental overdose shocked the hockey world. Seven months later, a New York Times investigation into Boogaard’s death revealed a dark side of the sport, with coaches encouraging and training young players to become fighters, leading to years of violence, injury, and dependence on pain medication. The author of the New York Times series, Pulitzer Prize-winning sports journalist John Branch, has published a full biography of Boogaard, set within an expanded analysis of fighting in hockey. Mark Norman gives his review.
The world of North American professional ice hockey was rocked in the summer of 2011 by the deaths of three National Hockey League players: Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, and Derek Boogaard. Each of the deaths was the result of self-harm: Rypien and Belak committed suicide, while Boogaard died from an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers and alcohol. There were a number of other overlapping similarities between the players, two of which are particularly significant: each man battled with depression and mental illness; and each had battled his way through Canada’s junior leagues and spent his NHL career playing the role of enforcer, an unofficial position in North American hockey that entails regularly engaging opponents in on-ice fistfights.
In the months after the three players’ deaths, intense debates raged in hockey circles about the role of fighting. Arguments tended to fall into one of two camps: on the one side are those who view fighting as an important and honourable way of on-ice peacekeeping, which prevents worse acts of violence through a combination of deterrence and pressure release; and on the other are those who see the physical toll of fighting as unjustifiably high and the spectacle of it as barbaric. Legendary Canadian cultural and hockey icons Don Cherry and Ken Dryden might be considered as emblematic of these opposing positions.
John Branch’s engaging new book, Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard, provides an insightful and sobering look into the life of one of these enforcers. In focusing in-depth on the story of Boogaard, Branch sheds light on the broader culture of junior and professional hockey in North America and the problematic role of fighting within it. The book emerged from 2011’s “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer,” an impressive New York Times investigation on Boogaard that included three lengthy articles by Branch and a multimedia section featuring short documentaries and a full video of Branch’s interview with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
After Branch’s New York Times pieces were published, I wrote a response that discussed what I saw as the five major social issues raised by his reporting: the relevance of Boogaard’s story to countless other young hockey enforcers; the early age at which many North American hockey players are socialized into fighting; the fact that many young men sacrifice other life opportunities, such as education or career development, for a slim shot at a professional career; the extremely damaging physical and mental punishment endured by many enforcers; and the complicity of Canadian major junior hockey leagues and the NHL in the damage caused by fighting. Reading Boy on Ice I found that similar themes emerged. However, the book-length format, as well as Branch’s increased access to records about Boogaard’s life, means that the focus is somewhat different. Whereas the newspaper pieces were, to my reading at least, more focused on the issues raised by Boogaard’s story, the book is more of an expansive narrative about the man himself and the ways in which broader forces shaped his life experience. As Branch writes in the book’s acknowledgements:
It would have been easy to turn Derek Boogaard into a one-dimensional character, as he was so often portrayed. But [Branch’s editors] never saw this project in absolutes – not as a sports story, not a hockey story, not a goon story, not a story about fighting or drugs or concussions. It is all of these, to be sure, but they shared a my belief that it was something both simpler and more complex. It was a story about a boy.
Branch stitches together his narrative from an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, including interviews with Boogaard’s family, friends, coaches, and former teammates and opponents; newspaper reports; video archives of Boogaard’s fights; Boogaard’s medical and financial records; and input from experts on brain science. Boogaard’s father, Len, a police officer, shared with Branch the results of his own personal investigation into the circumstances of his son’s death, allowing the author access to medical records and personal journals that he would otherwise have been denied. Len Boogaard’s contribution, which Branch praises highly, provides some of the most startling evidence of the extent of his son’s prescription pill abuse and his NHL teams’ negligence and complicity in enabling this addiction.
The book is organized in three sections, named for the geographic locations that were most significant in Boogaard’s career and life development: Saskatchewan, where Boogaard was raised and played junior hockey; Minnesota, where he broke into the NHL in 2005, eventually playing five seasons with the Wild; and New York, where he continued his career as an enforcer with the Rangers, and where his pill addiction accelerated and ultimately led to his death. This structure allows the reader to follow Boogaard’s unlikely rise from mediocre youth player to junior hockey enforcer, a transition he made entirely because of his willingness and ability to regularly engage in fistfights with opponents, and ultimately to professional hockey player. The book gives insight into the difficulty of this athletic journey. In following Boogaard’s climb, Branch reveals the allure that a professional hockey career holds for so many young Canadian boys, the severe power imbalances between youth players and their coaches, the toxic mix of honour and obligation that compels players to fight even when they may not wish to, and the slow but steady toll that hockey fighting takes on enforcers’ physical and mental health.
As Branch’s narrative progresses, the reader sees Boogaard’s life and health slowly deteriorate at the same time as his professional career takes off. By 2009, when Boogaard was forced into rehab by the NHL and NHL Player Association’s substance abuse program, his drug addiction was well-established and his mental health had deteriorated. As scientists discovered upon examining Boogaard’s brain (Boogaard’s parents agreed to allow his brain to be given to science, in the hope of understanding more about his declining mental health and ultimate death), the years of fighting and rough play had taken a terrible toll. He had, at the age of 28, acute brain damage – Stage 2 CTE. Had he lived, he may “have been fighting off the effects of dementia, maybe as early as in his 30s.” Although Branch is careful to avoid assigning blame, preferring instead to lay out the facts of the story, it is abundantly clear that Boogaard’s career, which included hundreds of fights from youth hockey to the NHL, had a severely detrimental effect on his life and well-being.
My only criticism of the book is perhaps an unfair one. I wish that, given the evidence uncovered in this investigation, Branch had been more forceful in critiquing the powerful structures and institutions that enable fighting in hockey and use players’ physical labour without offering them the support they need to cope with the pressures of the job. Culprits include the Canadian junior league, which allows teenage boys to fight each other as part of the profit-making spectacle of the sport; the hockey media, which glamourizes and celebrates hockey fighters; and the NHL and its teams, who not only permit fighting, but show very little regard for the consequences of the practice. Particularly upsetting is the utter medical negligence in the distribution of prescription pills by NHL team doctors – Branch reports that Boogaard frequently received multiple prescriptions for Ambien, OxyContin, and other drugs from different team doctors, who collectively supplied him with thousands of pills without checking into his other medication use. The widespread availability of prescription drugs in NHL locker rooms, as well as their common use amongst enforcers as a means of coping with the pain and anguish of that role, is a dirty secret of hockey culture – and it contributed significantly to Boogaard’s death.
Branch refuses to condemn anyone in his book, instead preferring for the facts to speak for themselves. While this is effective for highlighting the issues, and is consistent with Branch’s journalistic background, I would have liked to see him take the next step and critically interpret the evidence in a more forceful way. But perhaps this is the task of critical academics (or more editorial-minded journalists). Certainly, Branch has given us a wealth of data and insight with which to craft critiques of hockey’s social structures and institutions.
As awareness of the physical damage caused by traumatic brain injury increases throughout the sporting world, one can only hope that Boogaard’s tragic story contributes to efforts to reduce this harm and make the world of sport safer for participants. Branch’s Boy on Ice is an important contribution to this growing awareness. The book weaves sociocultural, physiological, and psychological threads together to produce a compelling narrative about one victim of this problematic aspect of sport culture. It is also an accessible book for those unfamiliar with hockey and its culture, as Branch provides effective explanations of unfamiliar terms and concepts that enhance, rather than sidetrack, the narrative. As such, this book should be of great interest to those with an interest in concussions and violence in sport. It will also appeal to those who want to read a well-written athlete biography that bucks convention – this is a story that does not end in the triumph of an unlikely underdog, but in tragedy, as the player attains his dream of playing in the NHL but is unable to cope with the pressures and expectations of his role in the game. Derek Boogaard may have been just a single boy on ice, but his story resonates with those of thousands of other young men who fight, sacrifice, and suffer for the slim chance of a career in professional hockey.
W.W. Norton and Company, 2014. 384 pp. ISBN: 9780393239393