By: Matthew Benedict
This paper is dedicated first and foremost to Derek Boogaard. In part, this is a paper about his struggle and his death. He struggled embracing his role of enforcer from a young age. His problems only became worse when he reached the NHL. Also, this paper is dedicated to all those hockey players who have struggled to cope with mental health issues silently and openly. Prescription drugs are highly addictive and can lead to devastating situations. Hopefully this paper will shed light on to how the NHL and hockey leagues worldwide can do a better job of providing support and help for players who are struggling and ensure they do not become addicted to prescription drugs in order to cope with their suffering.
The National Hockey League must accept reality and face its problems head on. Understandably, the NHL is a revenue focused business. In some sense, players are commodities, as they are in all professional sports. In learning about the life of Derek Boogaard, however, it is important that the NHL understand the greater context of the state of the game. Steps can be taken in the drug policy, safety of the game, mental health treatment, and role of enforcers, in order to ensure that the NHL’s future remains intact. If steps are not taken, more players will fall victim the way Derek Boogaard did. Derek did not fight because he wanted to, he fought because his coach and NHL wanted him to. The NHL must not allow another player to suffer the same fate.
Just like any traditional Canadian kid, Derek Boogaard fell in love with the game of hockey. He stuck out on the ice due to his size. At a young age, his team utilized his size to be a protector on the ice. His youth hockey coach said he was not a mean kid and never the instigator. Yet, “Derek would stick up for his team, he would stick up for his teammates but wasn’t mean at all”. He loved to play hockey, and yet he never truly loved to fight.
When he first played junior hockey in the Western Hockey League(WHL), however, he discovered his only shot to fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL was to be an enforcer; his best asset was fighting. The message was reinforced after he backed out of a fight in his young junior hockey career: he was demoted to a lower league. Because of this, Derek struggled finding his identity and thought about quitting hockey. He had been traded for losing a fight and realized if he did not win fights, he would not have a place in the WHL. However, he stuck it out. He was rewarded for his tenacity when he scored a playoff goal during his second year in the WHL. Regardless of the many fights he had won, the goal was the most important thing to him as he wrote about the goal: “it was the best feeling I had the last 2 years”. That said, if Derek wanted to continue playing hockey, he had to fight.
The “Boogey” Man
Derek was selected in the 7th round of the NHL Draft in the 2001 Entry Draft by the Minnesota Wild. He started his professional career in the East Coast Hockey League(ECHL), a minor league two steps below the NHL. The Minnesota Wild franchise told the coaches to develop him into an enforcer. He had an incredible work ethic and even took boxing lessons to help with his fighting on the ice.
Slowly but surely he made a name for himself by winning fights. He was promoted to the American Hockey League(AHL) for the 2003-04 season. He became a fan favorite for the Houston Aeros of the AHL and they promoted the “Boogeyman Cam” on the jumbotron at every home game to pay homage to his past fights. One night they even gave out bobbleheads to the fans complete with bobbling fists. This was part of a greater problem: fighting in hockey put fans in the stands which generated revenue.
Rewarded for his willingness to protect his teammates and subject himself to severe pain, Boogaard was rewarded with a promotion to the NHL with the Minnesota Wild. He appeared in 65 games totaling 2 goals, 4 assists, and 158 penalty minutes. He gained fame when he broke another players cheekbone during a fight. He was a fan favorite. A team executive said about Derek: “”It was the fierceness of his brand and the gentleness of his character”.
Continuing his play with the Wild, during the 2008-09 season he suffered more injury. He began taking prescription pain killers to deal with back pain. After the season he had two surgeries to treat his injury. It was then that he was first prescribed Percocet.
He quickly began abusing many prescription drugs and bought them illegally from acquaintances. To make matters worse, his brother Aaron often hid the drugs for him.
His drug abuse continued and he developed an addiction. He missed training camp at the start of the 2009-10 season. He was enrolled in the NHL’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program (SABH). The team told the public he was recovering from a concussion. In reality, he was spending time at a drug rehabilitation center in Southern California.
Boogaard’s playing style on the ice had not changed when he returned for the season. He remained the same steady, tough enforcer on the ice. His friends and teammates, however, noticed a severe change in his personality. He often showed up late to practice and meetings. He began to show less emotion. The team even warned other players not to share their prescription medication with him.
The following year he was signed by the New York Rangers. In his first season with the Rangers, he suffered a severe concussion during a fight. He was placed on injured-reserve for the remainder of the season. He suffered from post-concussion syndrome and spent months alone in his New York apartment. While in New York, he would drive weekly to Long Island with thousands of dollars to buy prescription pills to feed his addiction.
He tried to return to the ice in March, but he collapsed while he was skating. The Rangers sent him back to California for another rehab stint. While he was in California, his brother, Aaron, visited him. Aaron reports that Derek would often miss his therapy sessions or meetings to train on the beach. He ran up his credit card bill while he was in California: spending on luxurious meals and even rented a Porsche for a day spending $5,000.
Derek flew to Minnesota on May 12th with his brother Aaron in order to meet up with their other brother Ryan. He was given permission to go on an extended stay from rehab in order to attend his sister’s college graduation. Only a few hours removed from rehab, Derek popped a Perocet pill while he drank Jack Daniel’s and Coke at dinner and continued drinking all night returning to his apartment at 3am.
Aaron recalled that his brother called to him four or five times claiming that the bed was spinning. After Aaron stopped hearing the calls, he believed his brother had fallen asleep. Aaron left to go visit his girlfriend and left his brother all alone in his apartment. Aaron returned to his apartment the following afternoon. He showered and then left to pick up his other brother Ryan. Aaron believed his brother was still sleeping off the hangover. It was not a hangover, however, Derek Boogard was dead.
Derek’s family sent his brain to Boston University to be tested for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.). The medical examiners were shocked. At only 28 years young, Derek Boogaard had a severe degenerative brain disease that is caused by a history of repetitive brain trauma. Obviously, Derek had been involved in serious fighting since his days of playing hockey in the WHL.
C.T.E. affects people in different ways. Some common changes in a person include impulsive control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia. Derek Boogaard showed many signs of these symptoms. He often spent large sums of money impulsively on food. He was often lonely and had symptoms of depression. At one point in February of 2011 while he was suffering from post concussion syndrome, he had a 222 page cell-phone bill and 13,724 separate text messages. People close to him believed his personality had changed significantly as he was no longer the fun loving guy they knew before.
Drugs v. C.T.E.
There is a connection in the medical profession between brain trauma and drug addiction. Individuals that suffer from C.T.E. are more prone to become addicted due to how a drug may make them feel. Drugs are often abused to deal with the psychological and emotional issues caused by the trauma. Derek had been suffering from pain for many years due to injuries suffered on the ice rink. He found an escape from his pain in the drugs he consumed.
Of course, Boogaard may have also had personality traits that made him more prone to substance abuse. His father even believed he suffered from cognition and behavioral problems (including impulsive behavior) at a young age. All of these factors could have led to his drug abuse. However, he was first given Percocet by a team doctor to deal with injuries suffered playing hockey.
Following the death of Derek Boogaard in May of 2011, two other NHL players died. More followed. Sadly, the list just keeps growing each year. Rick Rypien committed suicide on August 15, 2011 at only 27 years old. Rypien was also in the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. Rypien was known to have been suffering from depression for more than 10 years. Wade Belak was another former enforcer that was found dead August 31, 2011. His mother stated that he had been suffering from depression. He admitted that he had been taking “happy pills” to cope with his depression for quite some time. Steve Montador was found dead at the age of 35 years old on February 15, 2015. He died four days before his wife gave birth to his son. Montador suffered from depression for years. He was open about his concussion problems. His brain was examined after his death and it was found that he had C.T.E. Although he was not necessarily known as an enforcer, he fought over 60 times in his NHL career.
Does the NHL Have a Concussion Problem?
In the light of Derek and the others, it is important to evaluate whether the NHL may not be addressing head injuries the way it should or doing enough to protect players. Even following the deaths of young NHL players in the 2011 offseason, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has remained uncommitted to admitting the NHL has a serious problem with brain injury. Although the focus of this player is on the enforcers, many “skill” players have had severe concussion issues over the years. NHL legends Pat Lafontaine, Eric Lindros, and Paul Kariya all had their careers ended by concussions. Even the modern great Sidney Crosby has continually suffered from concussions over his career. Given the link between concussions and C.T.E. it seems apparent that many former NHL players who suffered concussions would have C.T.E. Yet, Bettman was quoted as saying:
There isn’t a lot of data, and the experts who we talked to, who consult with us, think that it’s way premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point,” “Because we’re not sure that any, based on the data we have available, is valid.”
Regardless of the NHL’s stance, C.T.E. was found when Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador’s brains were examined. If the NHL would have warned its players of the dangers of concussions, and implemented proper concussion protocols, perhaps Derek Boogaard’s brain would not have suffered as much. For that reason, the NHL should be committed to warning current players and proceeding with caution on all concussion injuries. Given the high number of skill players suffering problems, it appears no one is truly safe from potential brain injury.
Is the NHL’s Drug Policy Problematic?
The NHL’s drug policy is rooted in education. The league adopted the policy with the hopes that it would lead to safer practices and allow the league to handle abuse problems internally. Unlike the other major professional sporting leagues in the US, the NHL does not suspend for recreational use drugs. Performance-enhancing drugs are suspended if the player is caught, which rarely occurs, which only leads one to believe there may be a problem with the testing procedure. In regards to recreational use, the NHL provides players with an educational seminar each year and uses up to two “no notice tests” each year. Players that are found to have a significant levels of recreational drugs are enrolled in the league-wide Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health problem program. Derek Boogaard was enrolled in this program. The idea is to provide players with support and therapy in order to monitor their drug use and help ensure they do not become addicted or recover from their addiction. Rather than suspend players and make the issue public, the NHL maintains anonymity in the public eye and attempt to reconcile the issue using their own doctors. Clearly, this policy is not working the way it was intended. A number of NHL players are known illicit substance abusers, in the same way Derek Boogaard was. The NHL tried to send Derek to rehab, and yet he was not truly embracing it. Because the NHL did not have other measures in place to treat Boogaard, he was able to continue his drug addiction with no swift action taken by the League. More has to be done to ensure that players do not get to the point of addiction. Some would argue that the only way to achieve this end is to have a more thorough and transparent drug testing policy. Until a solution is instituted, more players will be susceptible to recreational drugs and possible addiction.
Conclusion: Possible Solutions for the NHL
The NHL will be in crisis mode if it continues to operate as it has in the past. Steps have been taken to protect players. More steps can be taken. (1) While fighting in hockey is rooted in tradition, it is time that the NHL officially takes further steps to mitigate it. A 5 minute major penalty is no longer enough. It is time to institute game suspensions for fighting, especially if the fight is deemed unwarranted. Admittedly, the use of NHL enforcers is not what it once was. Unfortunately, for players that modeled their game after legendary NHL enforcers, including the likes of Derek Boogaard, professional hockey may no longer be a viable option. This is ok. Safety is more important than a paycheck. (2) The NHL drug policy is in dire need of revision. Recreational drug use is not treated with the consequences it should. Players should be held accountable for drug use and if a player is found to be abusing illicit drugs, that player should become a priority of the NHL. Suspension may be necessary to help curb some of these problems. During the season, the NHL needs to be comfortable testing players more regularly. Ensure that those abusing drugs are getting therapy for drug abuse and help understand why they may be using drugs as a coping mechanism. The Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program needs to be revamped. Ensure that top notch and unbiased doctors are in charge of the program. Follow up with players that are known drug abusers. Make sure they are at your call at all times to check in with them. (3) Focus on safety beyond fighting. Perhaps an 82 game season is too long. More games means more opportunity for injury. Suspend players for longer periods of time if they target the head of an opposing player. Perhaps playing on Olympic size ice can help turn the game into a game of skill rather than the traditional North American physical game we have known for so long. While it may take time for fans to adjust to a European style skill game, if it protects the players from brain trauma, that seems like a viable option. (4) Ensure that the concussion protocol is operated fairly and safely. Do not rush players back after a concussion. During playoff time, follow the same procedures as in the regular season. Players need to educate themselves fully and understand the dangers of concussions. Gary Bettman should take more responsibility in the C.T.E. research and make education of the effects of brain trauma a priority for players. While the research is growing and still fully undeveloped, the NHL should attempt to be at the forefront of embracing and evaluating the research. (5) Understand the correlation between concussions/brain injury and drug addiction. If a player has a history has a history of head injury, or mental health history, do not allow team doctors to provide them with highly addictive drugs. Find other methods to deal with pain (possibly explore medicinal marijuana or CBD oil). Highly addictive prescription pills are dangerous to prescribe given the personalities of hockey players. Do not allow team doctors to be the ones to start an addiction.
Branch, John. “Derek Boogaard: Blood on the Ice”