Detailed in the recent book, Boy on Ice (Branch, 2014), Derek Boogaard died in his late 20s and played for the NHL from 2005-10 recording more than 200 fights in professional hockey. He scored only three goals in his entire career. His primary job was ‘enforcer’ for the Minnesota Wild during a high-point of fighting in the 2005-10 seasons.
The typical NHL enforcer from the era, like Boogaard, knew he was under contract to protect the star players on the team, enforce rules when the referee couldn’t or wouldn’t, and give the fans a show. One of the most common justifications for hockey fights was given by Canuck’s Coach Marc Crawford when he stated: “I don’t know if you’ll ever take fighting out of the game or whether we really want to. When emotions spill over, it’s better to let it take care of itself right there than to have anything fester” (Branch, 2014). Similarly, the NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman described fighting as a necessary “thermostat” to prevent worse forms of violence on the ice.
Concussion did not yet sound alarm bells in the league, but by 2011 three of these enforcers died prematurely within four months of each other, and the tone of hockey fighting changed. Players Wade Belak, Derek Boogard, and Rick Rypien all died in 2011 at nearly the same time as NHL senior enforcer Bob Probert (age 45), the first NHL player confirmed to have CTE. A Hockey News poll in 2007 named Probert the greatest enforcer in history with 245 fights (Branch, 2014).
Before he died, Boogaard recalled being asked by a doctor a history of his concussions. The doctor asked him how many concussions he had suffered, and Derek said: “A few, probably.” The doctor then rephrased the question to ask: “how many times have you been struck in the head and everything went dark, if only for a moment?” Boogaard responded: “Try hundreds” (Branch, 2014).
Branch, J. (2014). Boy on ice: The life and death of Derek Boogaard.
Dr. Robert Hudson is the Library Director and Archivist at the United States Sports Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.