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The start of the NHL season is still weeks away, but the league made the news this week with its "spotter" policy. Under this plan, non-medical personnel will be watching to see if a player might have suffered a concussion, at which point the spotter can politely ask the team's medical staff to stop the game.
Len Boogaard, the father of former NHL player Derek Boogaard, who died of a prescription drug overdose four years ago after suffering many concussions during his six-year NHL career, spoke with Bill Littlefield about the league's response to the concussion crisis.
BL: Mr. Boogaard, I know you no longer follow the day-to-day NHL news, but are you at all comforted to know that starting on Oct. 7, "spotters" with no medical training will be watching out for player safety?
LB: No, not in the least. I think this is just along the same lines as the team doctors. The duty of the doctors is the health and safety of the players, but that's in conflict with what the owners want. The owner's priority is money and having a winning team, so the doctors are under tremendous pressure to get the players back into the game as quickly as possible. This leads to, you know, what happened to my son: over-prescribing of pain medication, which ultimately led to Derek's death.
BL: Prescription drugs were certainly very much involved in the death of your son. Was chronic traumatic encephalopathy a factor in his death as well?
LB: Yes, it was. Yeah, it was just the repeated blows to the head with the fights that Derek was engaged in. But this started back when he was with the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League. They got him a boxing coach while he was there, so while he was with the Cougars for four years, you know, he was getting boxing lessons. In 2001, Derek was drafted by the Minnesota Wild, and the Minnesota Wild hired a boxing coach for him, a guy by the name of Scott LeDoux. Scott LeDoux died shortly after Derek — I think if you go to the Concussion Legacy Foundation website, there's Scott LeDoux as being a donor.
BL: His brain was examined as well?
LB: Yes. You know, in 2011, Derek was in rehab, and the substance abuse doctors set him up with a boxing clinic. The NHL talks about concussions and they're trying to do this and they're trying to do that, but you look at the Minnesota Wild, and you look to even the program doctors and the substance abuse [doctors] making arrangements for Derek to get boxing lessons. So he was subjected to that repetitive trauma.
Bettman was complaining that the sampling of brains was too small. ... What he was basically saying was that more players need to die.Len Boogaard, father of Derek Boogaard
BL: The NHL has made some changes recently to the game. They've cracked down on headhunting and — to a lesser extent — fighting. Are you happy to see those changes?
LB: Well, that's another thing that they have supposedly a concussion protocol in place. But just as recently as during the playoffs in 2014, there was a player by the name of Dale Weise with the Montreal Canadiens. He took a vicious hit to the head, and it was readily apparent to everyone in the stadium as well as on TV that Weise was unsteady, he was woozy, he was disorientated. He spent a couple of minutes in the so-called "quiet room" and then he was back playing.
BL: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters this spring that there is “no evidence" that concussion necessarily leads to progressive, degenerative brain damage known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. How do you feel about the commissioner’s position?
LB: Oh, this is just typical. The NHL, they've just taken a page out of the tobacco industry playbook. You know, back in the 1950s there was a concern over the dangers of smoking, and the industry simply manufactured uncertainty or doubt. You know, they acknowledged, "Yeah, OK. Yes, smokers have a higher incidence of lung cancer, but why?" Said they didn't have sufficient data, you know, the science wasn't there. And Bettman's done exactly the same thing. John Branch, in December of 2011, he had an interview with Gary Bettman. Bettman was complaining that the sampling of brains was too small with respect to hockey players. What he was basically saying was that more players need to die.
BL: Given how much attention has been given to the National Football League's concussion problem and the lawsuits, of course, brought by thousands of players against the league, do you think the media has gone too light on the National Hockey League?
LB: Yeah, they have. I think there's some rationale for it. Like you said, there's thousands of players that have come forward in the NFL, whereas in the NHL, you know, there's 80, 90, maybe 100 players that have come forward. That all has to do with the NHL being a small, incestuous community. These players, as they're growing up, they leave home when they're 15, 16 years of age. They go and play in the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, and they're being paid $30, $40 a week. Everything is done for them, and if they make it to the NHL, you know, everything is basically handed to them on a platter. But once their career is over, they have nothing. They look to stay in hockey, so they're looking to coach or to scout or in some capacity to stay within the game of hockey. And once they're there, they don't want to jeopardize their jobs.
BL: Your family has sued the NHL in connection with your son’s death. Can you comment on where that lawsuit stands?
LB: The NHL is — what they've done is they've taken a page out of the NFL. They're using this preemptive clause, basically saying that Derek was part of a union, and as a member of a union you can't sue your employer. So that's what the status is right now.
BL: It must be extremely difficult for you to encounter what the commissioner is saying about no connection proved between concussions and apparent brain damage later on.
LB: It's about money. That's the bottom line. You know, especially the fighting aspect of it. It's simply entertainment, and it brings in fans. The NHL has said there's only two times that — during the course of the game — fans get to their feet. One is if their team scores a goal, or if there's a fight on the ice. I know from going to Minnesota and watching Derek play. And I'd be sitting in the crowd, and I'd be looking around at the fans. And they were disengaged from the game. You know, they'd be sitting there, talking to each other or on their cell phones. But then as soon as Derek hit the ice, you know, everybody started nudging each other, saying, "The Boogeyman's on the ice, the Boogeyman's on the ice." And everybody would gravitate to the front of their seats in anticipation of, waiting, you know, for something to happen, which inevitably it did.
BL: And that something was a fight.
LB: Yeah, yeah, or a hit, you know, and trying to ram somebody through the boards. But you could see... it was just entertainment.
This segment aired on September 19, 2015.
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