Commentary

Derek Boogaard felt the pain, too

Authorities say the NHL enforcer, who suffered from headaches and light sensitivity, died from a toxic mix of alcohol and painkillers

Updated: May 29, 2011, 6:10 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- On the afternoon of May 12, Derek Boogaard landed in Minneapolis tanned, rested and upbeat, giving every indication that the old Boogey was back. He dined on sushi that night, surrounded by a circle of his closest friends. The headaches that had confounded him and made the strapping, 6-foot-8 left winger so ill he abandoned cab rides for 60-block walks, just so his head would stop spinning, had abated. Boogey was home.

And make no mistake, this was home. The New York Rangers signed his checks, but the Canadian's heart was always in the Twin Cities. In Manhattan, he could walk around for six hours and nobody recognized him. He hated that, the isolation he felt after he had signed with the Rangers this past summer. People close to Boogaard say he was bored and lonely in New York. When he suffered a season-ending concussion in December, things got even worse. He didn't leave his apartment for three weeks, shunning the light, and had containers of takeout food piling up on the counters.

[+] EnlargeDerek Boogaard
Timothy T. Ludwig/US PresswireDerek Boogaard signed with the New York Rangers this past summer.

But now he was back, even if it was for only a few days, and the downtown revelers near Target Field wrapped him in a warm embrace. He drank Bud Lights and smiled for pictures on cellphones at Sneaky Pete's. At this particular watering hole -- one of Boogaard's favorites -- only three plastic action figures sit atop the bar, near the Hennessy. Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson and Derek Boogaard. And Boogaard didn't even play for the Wild anymore. Caught up in all the love, he planted a playful kiss on the cheek of a buddy. Boogaard, a GQ-looking 28-year-old who was the NHL's most feared enforcer, never worried about his masculinity. On this night, he wasn't really worried about anything.

Between swigs of beer, he went on about the future for hours. He would train the hardest he had ever trained; he'd lift in the morning and take jujitsu classes at night. He would prove to the Rangers, who had signed him to a $6.5 million contract, that he was worth every penny. He had so many plans.

In the short term, he was going to pal around with his brothers the next day. Ryan, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was flying in Friday. Derek loved it when the Boogaard boys were all together. Then at some point, he was going to hang out with former Wild teammate Brent Burns' wife. He was super tight with Burnsy, whose wife is pregnant and on bed rest.

Thursday turned into Friday, tomorrow turned into today, and roughly around 3:30 a.m., Boogaard returned to his apartment, which is less than a mile from Sneaky Pete's, closed his eyes and turned in for the night. Sometime in the next few hours, Derek Boogaard died.

A history of head injuries

A news release from the Hennepin County medical examiner pinned Boogaard's death on a toxic mix of alcohol and the painkiller Oxycodone. The death was ruled accidental. A source close to Boogaard who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Boogaard had been struggling with painkillers off and on for at least two years since he underwent shoulder surgery in April 2009.

[+] EnlargeDerek Boogaard
AP Photo/Jim MoneBoogaard's role as an enforcer meant he fought a lot. Here, he knocks the helmet off D.J. King of the St. Louis Blues.

Long before his head hit the ice Dec. 9 in a game against Ottawa, the last game Boogaard would ever play, the man who was paid to scare, intimidate and pummel his opponents was dealing with his own share of pain. He broke his nose numerous times, which, coupled with his massive 265-pound physique, made him snore so loud that road roommates bought earplugs and pelted him with pillows. He had two bulging discs, and broke his jaw, his hand and some teeth.

He suffered two concussions in the past two seasons alone, but people close to Boogaard believe he probably had more. Boogaard had a tough-guy job, and for decades, an enforcer's mentality was to rub a little dirt on any injury and skate on. Enforcers didn't use the word concussion. They said they got their bell rung.

After his death, Boogaard's parents donated his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine, which has been in the headlines a lot lately for its research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the effects of concussions on athletes.

Although it is unclear whether CTE played a role in Boogaard's death, many people close to Boogaard are awaiting these results, wondering if they will provide more answers. In the past 18 months, the Boston researchers linked former NHL players Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming to CTE. They were enforcers, just like Boogaard. The YouTube video of Boogaard's final fight has been clicked on more than 200,000 times, and shortly after the gloves dropped, fight junkies -- and there are a ton of them in hockey -- were weighing in on the brawl. Their scorecards said that Ottawa's Matt Carkner knocked Boogaard out with a jab to his nose. That bothered Boogaard for months, friends say. A broken nose wouldn't keep the Boogeyman out. No, what did him in, they say, was what happened after that. Carkner flipped Boogaard to the ground, and with the force of about 500 pounds, his head hit the ice.

In the months that followed, Boogaard wore sunglasses nearly everywhere because of light-sensitivity issues. He would become ill in the back of cars, his world spinning. Devin Wilson, a former junior hockey teammate who was his roommate in New York, said Boogaard would hold his head in agony during those dizzy spells and ask the cab driver to stop. Then they'd walk dozens of blocks, sometimes uphill, to reach his apartment on Manhattan's West Side.

"It was a pain in the ass, but I knew it was serious," Wilson said. "When he got back to the apartment, he'd immediately get his comfortable Under Armour gear on, grab a blanket, go straight to the couch and just lie down. All the lights would have to be out.

"The light thing was huge. That's why he liked going to movies so much in dark, cold theaters. Put it this way: He wasn't a movie collector. He doesn't have a big case of Blu-ray movies. It was just such a therapeutic atmosphere for him."

The fight with Carkner was his 70th in the NHL. According to hockeyfights.com, Boogaard tallied 184 fights in his career tracing back from the minor leagues and junior hockey.

The role of the enforcer

There were signs of problems before the head-rattling incident in Ottawa. This past summer, sports author Ross Bernstein was golfing in Minnesota when he got a call from Boogaard. "Dude, you've got to come pick me up," Boogaard said. Bernstein told him he was golfing, but Boogaard was insistent. Bernstein asked him where he was.

Boogaard didn't know.

[+] EnlargeDerek Boogaard
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyHockey insiders say the role of an enforcer is to protect his teammates -- the guys who can score -- from taking cheap shots.

"Turns out he was at a big home improvement store," Bernstein said. "This s---'s real. It's progressive. I can't imagine that you heal up and then another shot to the head helps."

Bernstein, who's written a number of popular hockey books, including "The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL," says he does not want to come across as a "tree hugger" who is squeamish about violence in hockey. He believes that enforcers are integral, even though rule changes in the NHL in recent years have diminished their place in the game.

Guys like Boogaard, whose dad also serves in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, actually help keep the peace on the ice, Bernstein says. They're bodyguards.

"Look, you may not appreciate his role; you might not even understand it," Bernstein said. "But without him, you're not going to win. You take a kicker in football. You might not think they're athletes, but you're not going to win without him.

"Derek was a specialist. Just his presence was enough to keep teams honest. They know that if they mess with [Marian] Gaborik, then Boogey's coming off the bench."

So Bernstein had written a book on one of the "Slap Shot" brothers whom Boogaard really liked, and he was eager for the author to do something similar on him. His reputation on the ice was nothing like his personality off it, and Boogaard wanted people to know about that. A few years ago, he ran into some bad PR when he and his brother Aaron, a right wing for the Laredo Bucks, opened a fight camp in Canada. The goal was to teach kids how to protect themselves in the rink. But once word of the camp reached the states, it caused an uproar.

"Some people blew that way out of proportion," said Frank Fiacco, his longtime boxing coach in his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan.

It's hockey, Fiacco said. People on the outside might not understand it, how a guy can be hired to play four or five minutes to essentially fight, how the fights are just an assumed part of hockey's culture. In 2009, Brandon Prust took an elbow from Boogaard in a hit so violent that Prust was out for three weeks with a concussion and Boogaard was suspended for five games.

Twenty months later, Boogaard and Prust were road roommates with the New York Rangers, struggling to hook up a PlayStation to the hotel TV and yakking over dinners. Boogaard joked that Prust owed him $25,000 for the pay he missed during his suspension. He repeatedly denied smacking him with the elbow, even after Prust's dad came to a game armed with a newspaper clipping that provided photo evidence. Must've been a bad angle, Boogaard said.

Prust and Boogaard became good friends. He'll acknowledge this now, that there are very few players in the NHL whom he's afraid of but that Boogaard was one of them. Off the ice, though, he was so much different. He wore Armani suits and horn-rimmed glasses and created a charity to help military families.

And by the end of the season, it was clear that Boogaard and Prust trusted each other. Their last conversation took place earlier this month by text. Boogaard typed that he would be out there on the ice with him next season. He called him "Buddy." Prust texted back. "I can't wait."

"It's kind of shocking when you meet him and get to know him," Prust said. "I don't think this guy would step on a spider. He's very calm and a very soft guy off the ice, you know? A very caring and loving guy."

Life in the city

The condo on the West Side of Manhattan had tons of possibilities. In the main room, Boogaard was going to put a 65-inch 3-D television. In his bedroom would go eight tiny TVs clustered together. No, New York did not feel like home yet. Minneapolis is a mecca for puckheads, and on some spring nights, young men roller-skate through the streets of downtown wielding hockey sticks. Boogaard embodied the city's humble and hardworking roots, and although he scored just two goals in his entire time there, his Wild jersey was the No. 1 seller.

In New York, Boogaard hadn't begun to establish himself. He was the kind of guy who kept the people he loved very close, and now all of those people lived at least a time zone away. A friend of Boogaard's said that enforcers don't care about money or adulation from the fans. They feed off the moment when they skate to the bench after they've fought someone else's battle, and their teammates bang their sticks in appreciation. For five months, Boogaard didn't have that validation.

The isolation ate at Boogaard. He loved the camaraderie of the team, just being around the guys. He connected with everybody, former Wild exec Chris Snow said. One year, the Wild had three Slovakians and a Czech player on the team. On road-game days, the team ate lunch together at the hotel, and players sat in their own little groups and spoke their own languages.

[+] EnlargeDerek Boogaard
AP Photo/Jim MoneKrysten Boogaard, center right, mother Joanne (blonde hair) and father Len, left, console each other as brother Ryan, right, speaks during a memorial at Xcel Arena on May 15 in St. Paul, Minn.

"Derek, more often than not, would be sitting at the table with the three Slovaks and the Czech player," Snow said. "And I'm pretty certain that a lot of the time, they were not saying anything he could understand. But he had this curiosity and he just enjoyed being around them. And he'd sit there longer than anybody else at lunch. He just liked being around people."

Eventually in Manhattan, Boogaard could open up to Devin Wilson. They reconnected after a Rangers game in November. Wilson was working in sales for, of all teams, the New York Islanders. He could relate to Boogaard because they were from the same hometown in Saskatchewan. He could relate because he knew what it was like to be surrounded by so many people yet feel so alone.

It was that way for them when they played junior hockey in Prince George, British Columbia. They were far from home during that pride-swallowing rookie season of hazing and 13-hour bus rides. It was a veteran team, and the rooks took a lot of guff. The older boys had bunk beds in the back of the bus; Boogaard and Wilson had to sleep sitting up. The closest road trip that season, Wilson says, was six-and-a-half hours away, one way. And after the game, they piled into the bus and headed somewhere else.

"Me and Boogey were probably more targets [of hazing]," Wilson said. "I didn't keep my mouth shut, which in hindsight probably wasn't a good idea. And I think the older guys gave him a harder time because they knew he could beat them up, and they didn't like it too much."

Boogaard landed with the Wild in 2005; Wilson didn't make it to the NHL and went to college. He picked Florida for his schooling because when your dream dies, the last place you want to be is in Canada, where babies might as well come out of the womb wearing ice skates. Wilson had to get far away from hockey.

So there they were in Manhattan, two kids from the prairie, walking around the city, staring up at the skyscrapers like tourists. They did that all the time. They played with walkie-talkies and talked about girls and life. They eventually decided to move in together and leased a condo/apartment hybrid on the West Side of Manhattan. Boogaard was so excited, he wanted to sign a three-year lease. They moved in May 1.

Last week, Wilson sat alone in the apartment, trying to figure out how he would ship all of Boogaard's items back to his family in Canada. The place was filled with military gear, military photos and night-vision goggles. Boogaard started a charity to help military families go to hockey games and was scheduled to spend the weekend of May 14 with members of the Minnesota National Guard.

He had told the people closest to him -- his agent, his family and a few friends -- that he planned on joining the National Guard after his hockey days were over. He loved his freedom, loved to fight.

And now Boogaard is gone, and Wilson is packing up the place and heading back to Florida. He went to dinner in Times Square last week and looked up at the buildings. "I had a little bit of a breakdown. I just want to get away from the place."

Among best friends

Jeremy Clark, one of Boogaard's best friends in Minneapolis, knows why Boogaard got so lonely and needed his circle. He had it his whole life.

He grew up in a small house in Regina, and the siblings were practically on top of one another. His dad, Len, drove a van while Derek ran in front. Len traveled many hours to watch his boys play hockey.

When one Boogaard went to the gym, he almost always was accompanied by two brothers. In the days leading up to his death, Boogaard was most excited about one thing: that his brothers were going to be together for a few days. "Perrrrfect," he'd say. He loved to use that word.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Clark
Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN.comJeremy Clark, one of Boogaard's close friends, helped train him in the boxing ring.

It is clear, two weeks later, that the Boogaards are reeling but functioning together, as they always have. Last week, Boogaard's agent, Ron Salcer, mentioned to one of Derek's brothers that his daughter was getting her master's degree from Pepperdine University on Saturday, the same day as Derek's funeral. Len called Salcer to tell him to skip the service in Canada and go see his daughter. Derek would want it that way, Len said.

The Boogaards were supposed to do their own celebrating last weekend. All of them -- Len, the brothers and Derek's mom, Joanne -- were supposed to go to Kansas to watch Krysten Boogaard graduate from college. Krysten played basketball for the Jayhawks. But Saturday, she was back in Canada, going to her brother's funeral.

In politely declining an interview request this week, Ryan Boogaard said in an email that if and when the family is ready to talk, it would make the decision as a group. Ryan and Aaron were listed on the police report from May 13. They found their brother's body.

When somebody became friends with Derek, it usually meant they also became friends of the family. Outside of that bubble, Derek wasn't always quick to trust. But once it was earned, Boogey was your friend for life.

Years ago, Clark swore this, he'd never get close to any of the guys he trained. He couldn't. When a guy shows up out of shape or slacks, it's harder to get him to listen if you're his friend. Within a few weeks of meeting Boogaard, he realized his efforts were fruitless. Boogaard just kept hanging around.

Clark stands in the boxing room of his spacious gym in Eagan, Minn., on Wednesday afternoon, staring at old photos. In the corner of the room, there's a giant picture of Boogaard flattening an opponent, causing the poor guy's helmet to fly. That's one of Clark's favorites. In the front office, there's a helmet and a pair of gloves from Boogaard's last days as a Ranger. The family wanted him to have these, to put up in his gym. It was one of Boogaard's homes.

Clark's cellphone has dozens of pictures of Boogaard doing silly things. There's the one in which they're wearing cowboy hats and matching belt buckles for a Brooks and Dunn concert. There's a photo of Boogaard climbing on an extension ladder, which was placed on a fire escape attached to Clark's gym. It was kind of a scary moment, watching Boogaard's million-dollar limbs twisting precariously. Derek just wanted to get to the roof so he could sunbathe and watch the turkeys nearby. So that's what they did for hours, talked and watched turkeys while country music played on Pandora.

"He had probably the biggest heart of anybody and the least arrogance of any pro athlete I've ever met," Clark said. "And I've met a lot of them. I've never had a friend like that."

Ready to go home

Boogaard's friends, his team and the NHL declined to comment about painkillers for this story. The New York Post reported that Boogaard, in the weeks before his death, had been receiving counseling in the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program.

Reached last week before the medical examiner's findings, Wilson said that Boogaard was in California days before he died receiving counseling at the behest of the Rangers. Wilson said he didn't know what the counseling was for but that Boogaard called him frequently that week and sounded ready to go home. He packed with the intention of staying for just a few days in California, Wilson said, then learned he had to stay longer.

Boogaard's agent, who's based in California, said he met Boogaard that week for dinner and to go over marketing strategies. Ron Salcer described his client as upbeat. He declined to comment on any details of Boogaard's treatment or how a 28-year-old man who just came back from counseling could wind up dead from an accidental overdose 48 hours later.

All Boogaard's friends know is that for a long time, he was hurting. And on the surface, at least, it looked as though things were about to change.

"It's just bad judgment. I don't know what to say. … I'm still very sad," Salcer said. "And it's tragic. That's why I sincerely hope there is an awareness that comes from this. That pain medications are a serious thing, and it's something that you can't just go into without having some knowledge about what you're doing. He didn't mean to hurt himself, I know that. That wasn't what he wanted."

"He certainly didn't want it to happen."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.

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