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.