EDMONTON - Derek Boogaard cast an imposing shadow.
The six-foot-seven, 265 lb native of Saskatoon, seemed almost larger than life.
Yet he was a gentle giant, a person who, once you got to know him, was impossible not to like and root for.
I first had the opportunity to interview Boogaard while he was still in junior, making his way to Medicine Hat following a trade from the Prince George Cougars.
It was easy to take a liking to him immediately, and it wasn’t surprising when he quickly established himself as a fan favourite with the Medicine Hat Tigers.
“The first time I met him is when I picked him up from the airport in Calgary and drove him to Medicine Hat,” said Rick Carriere, who at the time was the Tigers’ general manager. “I thought right away that he was a great kid. I know that his billets in Medicine Hat really liked him. They really enjoyed having him around.”
Boogaard went to Medicine Hat to try and get his career back on track. A draft pick of the Minnesota Wild, the Tigers gave him an opportunity to refine his game after things seem to derail for him in Prince George.
Things weren’t easy for the big man in the WHL, who at times seemed unjustly picked on by officials because of his size and strength.
Boogaard was once assessed a charging penalty even though he missed his opponent, and in the process, nearly brought the entire rink down with the force of his impact on the boards.
The running joke around the arena that night was that it was the first attempted charging penalty ever assessed.
“He got the opportunity to play with us, it was a clean slate for him,” Carriere said. “He took the opportunity to develop his game, and it helped him a lot.
“He went on to have a good career in the NHL. And remember that every time he would come to town to play the Edmonton Oilers, all the talk was about Derek Boogaard, not the Minnesota Wild.”
Boogaard’s death on Friday, sent shockwaves through the hockey community not only because of his youth and the mystery surrounding it, but also because of his appeal.
There was a reason for his popularity in Medicine Hat and why his jersey was among the best selling in Minnesota. Had he been able to play more in New York, they would have loved him there, too.
“It’s shocking,” said Edmonton Oilers forward Steve MacIntyre. “I got a text from a buddy (Friday) night telling me that Derek Boogaard had died and I got chills. It’s tragic. This is a huge blow to the hockey community. He was the guy, he was the toughest guy in the league.”
Boogaard, 28, was found dead by family members in his Minneapolis apartment. He spent the first five seasons of his NHL career with the Wild before signing with the Rangers last year.
Due to a concussion, Boogaard was limited to just 22 games last season.
According to the medical examiner, toxicology reports to help determine the cause of death won’t be available for weeks.
The Minneapolis police department said the case is being investigated, but foul play is not suspected in Boogaard’s death.
“When something like this happens, you start thinking and you begin to appreciate all that you have and how fortunate you are to play in the NHL,” MacIntyre said. “It wasn’t until you got a chance to play against him that you realized how big he was and how tough he was.”
MacIntyre squared off with Boogaard four times throughout his career.
The Oilers’ enforcer first faced Boogaard in junior.
“He was a couple of years younger than I was and I remember hearing about him,” MacIntyre said. “Then when I squared up with him, I couldn’t believe how big he was. I’m not a small guy, being six-foot-five and 265 lbs, but he made me look like a little guy.”
MacIntyre and Boogaard faced each other again three more times in the NHL. Last year, they fought twice when the Oilers paid a visit to New York to take on the Rangers.
“He beat me in the first one, then when we came out of the penalty box, we went again,” MacIntyre said. “I turned it up a bit in the second one, I wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easy.
“But he was definitely the biggest and toughest guy I’ve ever fought.”
For those who got an opportunity to know him, Boogaard was also one of the nicest guys around.
He’ll be missed.