May 16, 2011
Will tragic death lead to change?
ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
|Derek Boogaard died on Friday May 13, 2011, aged 28. (REUTERS/Eric Miller/Files)
So dominant was Derek Boogaard as an NHL enforcer that in life he might have been altering the role of fighting in the game.
But in death, could the former Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers pugilist tragically enact the most profound changes yet?
With news that Boogaard's family has donated his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine to determine if or how his role as a professional fighter contributed to his death, the hockey world will anxiously await the results.
Discovered unconscious and not breathing in his Minneapolis apartment on Friday evening, the Boogaard tragedy has sent shock waves throughout the league.
Hundreds of fans gathered at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minn., on Sunday evening to honour a young man who was a huge fan favourite during his five seasons there. Teammates past and present praised the Saskatchewan native as a gentle giant, a man who was dramatically different off the ice.
While it is premature to link Boogaard's tragic death with his career as an enforcer -- and anyone doing so is using it to shamelessly further their anti-fighting stance -- the family's action at least acknowledges concern that it is a possibility.
And if the results of either the study or the autopsy show that his life as an enforcer led directly to his death, how will the NHL react?
Boston U has been a world leader in evaluating degenerative brain disease in athletes as an aftershock of concussions. Most recently, the university studied the late Bob Probert and determined there was evidence of such a condition, even though the long-time NHL enforcer's official cause of death was heart related.
"Derek loved sports and obviously in particular hockey, so we believe Derek would have liked to assist with research on a matter that had affected him later on in his career," his brother, Ryan, told the Minnesota Star Tribune.
Already, it seems that Boogaard's death might become a major polarizing event in the great hockey fighting debate.
There is a reason the 28-year-old was one of the most popular Wild players and that his jersey was often the team's top seller and it had nothing to do with his community service activities.
Signed by the New York Rangers in the off-season, Boogaard e role that a majority of hockey fans seem to relish while on Broadway. By Sunday evening, video of that final fight of his career had more than 132,000 hits on Youtube.
In that relatively short bout against Ottawa's Matt Carkner, Boogaard appears to be stunned early by a big right hand to the jaw area. The 70th fight of his NHL career (almost one out of every four of his 277 games) ended when he was wrestled to the ice head-first by Carkner. Boogaard also suffered a shoulder injury in that Dec. 8 fight but was reported to be bothered by headaches months later.
As concussions have become the NHL's hot-button issue, Boogaard is not alone among designated enforcers with lingering effects of a head injury related to a fight.
The Toronto Maple Leafs' Colton Orr missed the last 36 games of the 2010-11 season after getting injured in a fight with Anaheim's George Parros on Jan. 20. Towards the end of the season, the Leafs said they were being extra cautious with Orr's recovery but there has been no public indication that he was close to returning.
Boogaard, meanwhile, had become one of the NHL's most feared fighters to the point where his reputation and 6-foot- 7, 265-pound frame could discourage potential foes.
"He scared the hell out of me," Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton told the Providence Journal prior to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Lightning.
"He was a big man. There's a lot of guys who do this job, and he was definitely at the top of the list for guys you didn't want to run into. If you had to, you had to, but he had the potential to hurt you. He was feared and arguably the toughest guy in the league."
Sunday night in Minnesota, Boogaard's life and career was celebrated. Only time and medical analysis will determine how both are remembered.