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An Excerpt From 'Boy On Ice: The Life And Death Of Derek Boogaard'

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This excerpt appears in "Boy On Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard." The author also joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. See our interview and book review

Excerpted from “BOY ON ICE” by JOHN BRANCH

“From BOY ON ICE, by JOHN BRANCH. Published by W. W. Norton & Company © 2014.  Reprinted by permission of the publisher.”  


PROLOGUE

Derek Boogaard did not have to fight. 
This time, all he had to do was skate onto the ice. He could keep his thickly padded gloves on his hands, rather than theatrically flick them aside. He did not have to curl his mangled fingers into fists and raise them with malicious intent. Instead of dropping his stick, he could hold on to it with two hands, as if he fully intended to scramble for the puck and shoot it into the net, just like all the other players, just as he did as a boy.

He could glide past the bad guys, the ones Derek was paid to fend away with the constant threat of savagery and the occasional use of violence, and do nothing more than smirk and shrug. He was a hockey enforcer, maybe the scariest one in the league, with a reputation for scattering opponents with a look and shattering faces with a punch. But now, Derek simply could be a child, beloved for doing nothing but being himself, sliding effortlessly in little curls.

Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard . . .

The sold-out crowd at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, home of the National Hockey League’s Minnesota Wild, chanted his name. The voices of nearly 20,000 people echoed from the rafters to the ice, from the seats against the glass to the concession stands on the concourse, building into a loose and chaotic chorus.

They pronounced his name the way all strangers had in recent years. When Derek was a teenager, first being molded into a hockey fighter by professional coaches, the men who discovered him in the small prairie town in Saskatchewan dubbed him “The Boogeyman.” Soon, the first syllable of the boy’s last name was transformed to something more frightening, too, with a simple tweak of pronunciation: Boo, not Beau.

Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard . . .

It was Derek’s second NHL season. He was 24. He had scored no goals and recorded one assist the entire year, on a forgettable goal in a February game against Florida. Of the 32 men who suited up for the Wild that season, Derek averaged the fewest minutes of ice time. Yet Derek’s replica jersey, No. 24, was the best selling of all the Wild players.

He was listed in the game program at six feet, seven inches, one of the tallest players in the league, but Derek was closer to six foot eight. With his skates on, to the top of his helmet, he was roughly seven feet tall. The height distorted his shape and disguised his strength, stretched him out into something almost lean and gawky. Teams listed him at 260 pounds, but it was wishful thinking. Derek usually arrived at training camp weighing at least 10 pounds more, and occasionally approached 300. His arms and chest and shoulders were oversized, but not chiseled. Derek’s center of gravity rested low, in his thick thighs and massive seat, more like a speed skater or a cyclist than a hockey star.

He had little of the outward menace of other enforcers, those desperate to intimidate with snarls and sneers. Derek rarely looked angry on the ice. His lean face was in a constant position of indifference, as if to cloak what he was thinking behind the sad eyes with heavy lids. His nose, repositioned too many times to remember, descended down, then left, then down again, as if following a detour. For some players, missing teeth were a badge of honor. Not Derek. But his full set of white teeth was only partly real.

Under his own oversized jersey, Derek wore the flimsiest of shoulder pads, the same ones he had worn when he was a boy, playing in a small-town rink with aluminum siding and three rows of bleachers. Then, the only sounds echoing through the building were those of the puck smacking the base of the boards with a thud, the hand- me-down skates carving the ice, and the volunteer coaches shouting instructions and encouragement. The bleachers were empty except for smatterings of parents and siblings. When there were road games, the family van or his father’s police sedan cruised through the frozen black night of the impossibly flat prairie. The trips often ended long after bedtime on a school night, the bright light of the warm garage awakening the boy balled up and asleep in the back seat.

When the boy dared to dream, he dreamed like this.

Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard . . .

There was no opposing player’s jersey to grab with the left hand, no face to smash with the right. There was no fear of getting his nose broken, or of having the frayed muscles of his shoulder shredded, or of feeling the bulging disk in his back send jolting waves of pain up his spine. There was no worry over having his raw knuckles explode in blood against the helmet or jaw of the other man. There was no risk of another concussion, or of that one perfectly timed blow that can rearrange a career, the kind that Derek had already built a reputation for delivering. There was no thought of a quick and embarrassing fall to the ice to deaden the crowd’s enthusiasm and end the fight, which is the way so many of them go, because boxing is hard, but it is harder still while standing on ice with quarter-inch-thick blades attached vertically to the soles of lace-up boots, knowing your job and reputation are on the line.

The moment was just that, a moment in a life made up of millions of them. But to Derek, it was never forgotten. Four years before this night, he had played for a low-rung minor-league team in Louisiana, getting paid a few hundred dollars a week, drinking cheap beer in a ground-level apartment that he shared with his first girlfriend.

Four years after this night, he would be a millionaire living alone in a 33rd-floor condominium overlooking Central Park in New York City, a player for the famed New York Rangers, given nothing less than everything he had ever wanted and silently longing for something else.

Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard . . .

There was 1 minute, 48 seconds left in Game 4 of Minnesota’s first-round playoff series with the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks had won the first three games of their best-of-seven series, each by one goal. Derek had missed Game 3 two nights earlier with the flu. And in Games 1 and 2, he had spent about nine minutes on the ice and 16 minutes in the penalty box.

Now Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire wanted to add a desperate dose of Derek’s feistiness to the series. Derek had “all the subtlety of an armor-plated Zamboni,” reporter Jim Souhan wrote that night for the StarTribune in Minneapolis.

Late in the second period, with Minnesota trailing 1–0, Derek corralled the puck in a corner behind Anaheim’s goal. He was a good skater for a man his size, but his strength was in straight-ahead momentum rather than ice-carving agility. He was able to build speed with his long strides, and opponents tended to give him a wide berth, the way cars peel aside for an oncoming fire engine.

Given room, Derek flicked a pass that slid between two Ducks players and arrived on the stick of teammate Pierre-Marc Bouchard, standing in front of the goal. Bouchard’s first shot was blocked and returned to him. His second tied the game.

Derek was credited with an assist. It was the only postseason point he would ever score in the NHL. The game was tied, and Minnesota carried the momentum into the third period, scoring three times in about eight minutes. The final goal prompted an immediate scrum, an angry knot containing most of the players on the ice. Five penalties were assessed, including two for a fight between Minnesota’s Brent Burns and Anaheim’s Corey Perry after Perry launched himself into a group of players.

Derek watched helplessly from the bench, precluded by rules from joining the fray on the ice. And he was on the bench again with 1:48 remaining, when Anaheim’s Kent Huskins and Minnesota’s Adam Hall stopped the game with another fight. Anaheim’s Shawn Thornton skated half the length of the rink to jump in.

The crowd, electrified by the fights and the imminent victory, cheered lustily. Other players paired off and traded barbed words and threatening shoves. Anaheim’s Brad May gave mild-mannered Wild defenseman Kim Johnsson a push and then punched him in the face with his right hand. Johnsson collapsed to the ice with a concussion.

Derek leaned over the rink’s half-wall, which reached only part- way up his thigh. He calmly challenged all the Ducks to a fight.

Anaheim players shouted back over the din. Superstar Teemu Selanne looked at Derek incredulously, and even a novice lip reader could see that the Finn had full command of the vulgarities of the English language. Others tried to shout Derek down, too. Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle dismissively motioned to Derek with a flapping hand, like a man with an invisible puppet.

And that is when the moment came, seeping up through the commotion.

Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard . . .

“Now the fans are calling for Boogaard!” television play-by-play announcer Dan Terhaar shouted to viewers.

The officials were huddled to the side, sorting penalties and trying to restore order to the final 108 seconds of the game. The series would head back to Anaheim for Game 5, but the immediate concern was ending Game 4 without further violence. Fans were intoxicated with a cocktail of joy and bloodlust.

Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard . . .

Lemaire, the Wild coach, hollered from behind. Derek glanced back over his left shoulder and nodded. In one motion, without expression, he spun over the boards on his right hip. He glided onto the ice with a couple of small steps atop his size-12 skates.

The noise surged like thunder, a slow rumble quickly over- whelmed by a crescendo of cacophonous energy.

“If the roof wasn’t screwed down, it would have flew off,” said Derek’s mother, Joanne.

Derek casually held his stick in front of him, across his sturdy thighs, his right hand near the nub and his left hand near the blade. He slid to the left, then curled back to the right, toward the Anaheim bench.

With a look of nonchalant amusement, Derek caught someone’s eye. And, with a smirk on his lips, he shrugged. In the most heated, electric moment of Derek’s career, he did not have to fight.

As a boy, he wanted to fit in, not stand out. Like nearly all enforcers, Derek dreamed of playing alongside everyone else, stick in hand, skating and passing and shooting and scoring. He could not help his size, and he grew to understand that, if he continued to play, he would be expected to stand up for his teammates. There would be honor in that.

But nobody dreams of playing hockey so that they can hurt other people. It just goes that way. Players are shaped into puzzle pieces that fit with all the others. A boy is stripped to a set of skills at the whim of coaches and scouts. To keep playing hockey, do more of this and less of that. The untalented and undedicated are discarded, swept away at the end of each season. Survivors plug away, baited by hope.

No one ever told Derek directly that his primary mission in hockey would be to fight. Not the scouts who discovered him at 14, when he ripped away from referees and attacked an opposing bench. Not the coaches who limited his playing time, trying to mold him, improbably, into a suitable balance of caged benevolence and unleashed ferocity. Not the general managers who plucked him and pulled him ever higher in hockey’s hierarchy, a goon on the ice and a boon at the box office.

To admit to any of that would demean the player and the role. Instead, motivation was wrapped in euphemism and vaunted esteem. To be the “tough guy,” to serve the vital role of protecting your teammates, took a special sense of duty and selflessness. There might be twelve forwards and six defensemen and two goalies, but there was one enforcer. It was a void that no one else could fill.

Of course Derek would do it.

He knew deep inside that he would not be there at all if not for his ability and willingness to both throw punches and withstand them. If he wanted to keep playing hockey, Derek would have to take a different route than the other boys. If he wanted to play in the National Hockey League, he would have to use a side-door entrance reserved for those willing to do what most could never imagine.

The late-game discord between the Wild and Ducks settled to a simmer, and the clock eventually expired to secure a Minnesota victory. Derek was named the third star of the game, rare recognition for an enforcer. He had played 8 minutes, 28 seconds of the 60-minute game, more ice time than he had received in all but three regular-season contests.

“Boogey makes an impact because they’re looking for him,” Lemaire said afterward. “Not to fight, but they’re looking for him when he’s on the ice.”

The scare tactic worked only because of Derek’s budding reputation as a fighter. In his first two NHL seasons, he had become one of the most feared players in the league. He fought 26 times in 113 games, more than all but four other players. He won most of those fights, knocking down some of hockey’s fiercest men. And when he shattered the right cheekbone and eye socket of plucky middle- weight Todd Fedoruk with a single punch in October 2006, forcing surgeons to rebuild the crater with metal parts, Derek became the scariest enforcer of them all.

Suddenly, Derek had it all: fame, admiration, money, respect, and a job playing hockey. He was not good enough to do it with his stick or his skates, but there was a role for him and his fists, if he was willing to dutifully distribute punishment and quietly absorb pain.

What no one calculated was the slow toll. There were the arthritic hands, the nose broken too many times to count, the balky back that kept him up nights, the right shoulder that acted like a piston during fights but ached so much that Derek often struggled to get shirts on and off. There were the swollen, scabbed hands that bled after fights and ached at night, numbed only with submersion in buckets of ice water.

Derek kept most of that to himself. Players who played fewer than five minutes a game, if they were in the lineup at all, were unwise to provide excuses to be replaced by the reservoir of young men looking to have the job. They were thankful to be part of the team.

What Derek could not comprehend was the cumulative damage in his brain, the tau proteins gathering in tiny brown spots in his pink frontal lobe and other recesses of his mind, strangling the cells, one subconcussive blow at a time.

When the Wild and Ducks reconvened in Anaheim for Game 5, Derek did not wait for the game to begin. In pregame warmups, as teams glided over separate halves of the rink and with no officials on the ice, he elbowed veteran defenseman Chris Pronger. That quickly got the attention of George Parros, a six-foot-five bruiser who had replaced Fedoruk during the season as an antidote to Derek.

“He crossed over the red line, so I got in his way just on their side of the ice and then he shot a puck at me,” Derek said of Pronger to the StarTribune. He had a habit of understating the bedlam that surrounded him and his role. “And then Parros came flying over the line. It just escalated from there.”

The players swarmed near the middle of the ice. Anaheim fans, still settling into their seats, instantly adopted the same thirst for fights that fueled the fans in Minnesota.

Anaheim won the game that night, and the teams lined up and shook hands, a proud hockey tradition of end-of-series sportsman- ship. Derek was told to stay away, to avoid trouble.

The Wild re-signed Derek that summer to a three-year, $2.63 million contract that kept him away from other teams hungry to have him on their side.

“Derek’s development is a testament to his dedication, discipline, and the emphasis he places on team above individual,” Wild general manager Doug Risebrough said. “Through his style of play and his personality, he has made himself a valued player and person in the organization.”

But no position in hockey was as fickle as that of the enforcer. Reputations could be burnished or demolished with just one fight— even just one punch. There might be only one primary fighter on the roster, but there were countless, faceless players toiling in lesser leagues, eager to do anything to play in the NHL. Enforcers, usually the lowest-paid players on the roster, were interchangeable parts.

Most of the physical pain was hidden, but some could be seen— in the dazed expressions, the lost teeth, the bleeding faces. The emotional toll—the stress, the worry, the expectations—was masked behind a charade of showmanship and a false display of fearlessness. Like most enforcers, Derek never saw any of that coming, the constancy of pain and the coldcocking of emotion.

Emboldened by the playoffs, Derek got into a fight in the first game of the next season, a 60-second slugfest with Chicago’s David Koci. Derek lost his helmet early and absorbed several blows to the face. Most of Derek’s punches struck Koci’s helmet, which surely had Derek wishing that the unwritten rules of his teenaged days applied. Back then, combatants would remove their helmets before a fight as a gesture of respect to the other fighter’s knuckles. When junior leagues outlawed that, the boys would gently remove one another’s helmet before throwing punches.

Derek was 25, just starting his third NHL season. Within a year, Derek would have teeth knocked out and be prescribed vast amounts of painkillers by team doctors. In another year, he would be in substance abuse rehabilitation. In another year, he would be in New York, rich and miserable and alone. And in another year, he would be dead.

Maybe it all turned on that spring night in April, when Derek led the Wild to its only victory of the postseason. A rare assist. A bout of intimidation. A smirk and a shrug. It was the apex of a career that no one could have predicted, a hopelessly shy boy from Saskatchewan being cheered for doing nothing but gliding on the ice. It was the night that Derek Boogaard was cheered loudest. Strange that it should come on a night when he did not have to fight.

Excerpted from “BOY ON ICE” by JOHN BRANCH

“From BOY ON ICE, by JOHN BRANCH. Published by W. W. Norton & Company © 2014.  Reprinted by permission of the publisher.”

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