Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter Branch debuts with a biography of hockey player Derek Boogaard (1982-2011), a fierce fighter on the ice who died of an overdose of alcohol and prescription painkillers at the age of 28.
“No one ever told Derek that his primary mission in hockey would be to fight,” writes the author. Yet that is what the shy, oversized Saskatchewan native did throughout his career, first for minor teams, then with the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers, where he became the NHL’s most feared fighter. In this engrossing narrative, based on an award-winning Times series, Branch details both Boogaard’s life growing up in rural, hockey-mad Canada, where his size stigmatized him in school, and his years of playing hockey, when size—not talent—brought him success. In a sport where violence attracts crowds, Boogaard’s role as an enforcer was to intimidate opponents and protect his team’s star players, often engaging in game-stopping fights. With spotlights beaming and Rocky theme music blaring, the enforcer and his adversaries would beat on each other with fists and sticks and then spend a few minutes in a penalty box. To alleviate stabbing pain in his back, hips and shoulder, Boogaard took increasing amounts of painkillers. In his fourth professional season, he obtained 25 prescriptions for oxycodone and hydrocodone from 10 doctors. Despite efforts at rehabilitation, he persisted in his addiction, becoming increasingly erratic and depressed. An autopsy revealed that Boogaard had suffered a series of concussions as well as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition caused by repeated blows to the head. Boogaard’s death and increasing public awareness of the dangers of concussions have prompted steps to limit fighting in hockey’s junior leagues, but there’s been no action at the professional level, where a culture of “concussion denial” reigns.
A sad, tragic story that underscores the high human cost of violent entertainment.