The former NHL defenseman died last week at the age of 28. A look at the essential, misunderstood role he played on the ice.
Derek Boogaard was not a goon. He was an enforcer.
There's a difference.
The former National Hockey League defenseman was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment Friday. His death came five months after he suffered a season-ending concussion during an on-ice fight while playing for the New York Rangers. His cause of death is unknown; Minneapolis police said the 28-year-old's body showed no outward signs of trauma, and results of an autopsy are not expected for several weeks.
More certain is this: Boogaard will be missed. By his family. By hockey fans. By everyone who knew him. A hulking, 6-foot-7 presence whose toughness and punishing right hook earned him the nickname "The Boogeyman," Boogaard was feared on the ice. He was adored off of it. During an emotional memorial service held Sunday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, he was remembered as "a teddy bear," dependable and loving, a source of comfort to his teammates, a kind man who was heavily involved in charitable work, including helping military families and a local children's hospital.
None of that was incongruous with Boogaard's profession.
Hockey enforcers have the most misunderstood job in sports. Grabbing jerseys, trading punches, losing teeth, fists landing like lead, they appear barbaric. Wantonly destructive. They look like thugs, like goons in skates.
In reality, they are anything but.
Boogaard helped teach me as much. In the summer of 2007, I met him and his younger brother, Aaron, in a boxing gym in their hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan. Specifically, I met them inside a ring. The two were sparring, trading jabs, black gloves flickering under dull florescent lights. They also were killing time. Later that evening, the brothers had planned to host a hockey-fighting clinic for children 12 to 18. Following a hand-wringing media firestorm, however, the two-hour camp had been cancelled.
When Derek finished his work with a boxing coach, he draped his giant frame over a tiny folding chair. He was sweaty and exhausted, relaxed and engaging. We talked about his role. He saw his job as honorable. I couldn't disagree. Hockey fighting isn't random. It enforces—and adheres to— a strict, unwritten code of conduct. One that governs on-ice violence. One that arguably makes hockey safer. The code works a lot like frontier justice, or geopolitics. As I put it in an ESPN.com article:
[T]he code owes something to both beanball wars and the Book of Exodus. An eye for an eye. You plunk one of ours, we plunk one of yours. Justice via swift, painful retaliation. Hockey is a fast, full-contact, no-stoppage sport played by large men with sharp blades and curved sticks. Referees can't police everything. Enter the [enforcer]. Anyone who roughed up [Wayne] Gretzky in his Edmonton Oilers heyday, for example, knew he'd have to pay a price—a punch in the face from bodyguards Marty McSorley or Dave Semenko. As such, maybe he would think twice. Or maybe he wouldn't bother in the first place. Could Gretzky have fought for himself? Sure. But he wouldn't have been very valuable sitting in the penalty box, bruised and bleeding from the nose, any more than Semenko would have been useful drawing faceoffs.
Something else non-hockey fans fail to understand: Tough guys seldom pick on smaller, weaker players. They fight other enforcers. That's part of the code. In fact, many hockey brawls don't even revolve around an actual beef between the participants. No joke. The two players exchanging blows are often just doing their jobs, getting punched in the head so someone else more valuable—a slick passer, a skilled scorer—can avoid it.
Similarly, the fights themselves have established rules of etiquette. No challenging someone at the end of his shift. He might be tired. No punching someone on the ice. (You might really hurt them, and besides, the brawl's over. You won). Also, no dipping your helmet forward, because the other guy might cut his knuckles, leaving him unable to fight.
And then he could be out of a job.
Nobody, Boogaard told me, grows up wanting to be an enforcer. They take on the role because they're tough, and good at it, and because they desperately want to keep playing a game that otherwise would find them lacking. Too slow, maybe. Or not deft enough with the stick. But willing to mix it up. It's a pressurized gig, and a lonely one: Did Mario Lemieux go to bed every night thinking about tomorrow's un-ducked fist, the one that that could leave him face down on the ice, open-mouthed and unconscious? Over time, the physical and emotional toll can ruin enforcers' bodies and minds. One blow at a time.
(Scientists found the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain of troubled former NHL enforcer Bob Probert, who died last year at age 45. Boogaard reportedly donated his brain to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.)
Other players know this. Fans, too. In most hockey cities, the designated hitter is—at worst—the second-most popular guy on the club, inside and outside the locker room. Teammates feel protected—as former Minnesota Wild teammate said at Boogaard's memorial, "a lot of guys on our bench grew an inch or two and were a lot more braver when Derek was on the bench." Fans see themselves in the gritty overachievers who will pay any price to be on the ice. Everyone understands the sacrifice, the selflessness disguised as aggression.
Is it any wonder Boogaard was remembered as giving?
Enforcers. Not goons. Near the end of our conversation, Boogaard showed me his hands, the same ones that a year earlier had fractured then-Anaheim enforcer Todd Fedoruk's cheek and orbital bones with a barrage of brutal punches. They looked like mangled tree branches. I saw scarred knuckles. Knobby joints. A reddish-purple lump atop his right middle finger that resembled a pulverized clown nose.
Boogaard flashed a weary smile. "You punch someone in the skull, and it's like, 'Fuck!'" he said. "It still hurts." There was something beautiful about those hands, about the pain of the job, about man they belonged to.