Interview: John Branch, Author of 'Boy On Ice' In 2011, 28-year-old Derek Boogaard — one of the NHL's most fearsome fighters — was found dead of an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol. He also showed signs of serious brain injury.
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'Boy On Ice' Explores The Emotional And Physical Toll Of Dropping The Gloves

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'Boy On Ice' Explores The Emotional And Physical Toll Of Dropping The Gloves

'Boy On Ice' Explores The Emotional And Physical Toll Of Dropping The Gloves

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He stood nearly seven feet tall in skates, close to 300 pounds. Derek Boogaard was an enforcer, considered by many the toughest guy in the National Hockey League. His job - to fight.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And now we've got a fight going with Boogaard and Colton Orr. Oh, the heavyweights are going at it.

BLOCK: Derek Boogaard didn't make it to the NHL because he was a great hockey player. He made it purely on his size and the strength of his fists. In 2011 at the age of 28 Derek Boogaard was dead of an accidental overdose, painkillers and alcohol. His brain also showed clear signs of disease most likely from repeated blows to his head. The story of Boogaard's rise to the NHL and devastating fall is told in new book by New York Times sportswriter John Branch, titled "Boy On Ice." I asked him to describe the role of the hockey enforcer.

JOHN BRANCH: The enforcer is basically a bodyguard and the idea being that you have a player who is big and scary and tough, who will protect the more skilled players on your team from bad guys on the opposing side; the idea of being that they are basically deterrents from some of the cheap shots that might hurt players in other ways.

BLOCK: We should explain, John, that the family says the name Bogard but he became known as Boogaard by announcers. Let's listen to announcers calling a Derek Boogaard fight, this is from 2010.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Here's Boogaard and King, dropping the gloves.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: This is as big as it gets.

BLOCK: And, John, Derek Boogaard here is playing for the Minnesota Wild. He's going up against D.J. King with the St. Louis Blues. Let's keep listening.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: This is a super heavyweight bout. King lands a right, now some lefts by King, and then Boogaard fighting back. Oh, and King stomped Boogaard there and then he comes back. And he stomps King.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Oh, he tagged him with a right.

BRANCH: You know, the fighting in the NHL especially and I think in some of the minor leagues, it's usually the loudest and the most excited the crowd gets during the entire the game. The two guys will usually start pushing each other; they'll drop the gloves because part of the culture is you fight with your bare fists.

And they'll stand there and sort of skate around each other and so that gives the crowd time to stand up. It gives the announcers time to, you know, sort of say here we go again. And people generally are on their feet watching, going crazy or they're, you know, calling for blood. It's about as Roman a spectacle as we probably have in major sports.

BLOCK: And if you're actually at the arena, you'll see the players heights and weights projected on the screen like, as if it were a boxing match.

BRANCH: Absolutely. They call it tale of the tape, showing their heights and weights, maybe their record against each other as combatants. Inside the arena the scoreboard might have what they used to call, for example when Derek was in the minor leagues, the boogie cam showing the replays of his fights. You know, when Derek was in the minor leagues for example they gave away bobbleheads of Derek Boogaard. And he had fists that bobbled. It wasn't just the head - it was the fists as well.

BLOCK: Well, what was the physical toll on Derek Boogaard of all these fights over the years?

BRANCH: These guys get hurt. And there's a both a physical and very emotional toll on these guys. Most of them have hands and fingers that are just crumbled. But Derek had all sorts of injuries in terms of shoulders, broken noses, hip injuries when he'd fall on the ice. He was always hurt. But the problem is, for an enforcer, a couple things - one is that they are paid to be the toughest guy on the ice.

So they can't show this kind of pain. And secondly, because of their skills they basically can fight but for the most of them are not skilled players that would be on the roster anyways, and so most of them feel like I can't admit to my injuries.

And they'll tell you also, especially once they retire, they'll tell you that the emotional toll is something that nobody ever understands. The fear of the fight that night that you know is going to be coming; the fear that the next punch against somebody like Derek Boogaard could end your career. There's a huge toll that I don't think people have fully understood.

BLOCK: Well, Derek Boogaard's dissent into prescription drug addiction is terrifying, as you describe it. There are painkillers and pills to help him sleep. He was able to get lots and lots of drugs from lots and lots of doctors, which shows something about prescription drug abuse and the ease of getting prescription drugs in the NHL.

BRANCH: You know, what's interesting and I think what Derek discovered at that point was that, you know, a doctor would prescribe these and Derek could call back and say I need more. And the other doctor would prescribe some for his - the surgery he had done.

And Derek could call back and say now I need more. And the doctors weren't communicating between one another. Finding pills was really a problem for him.

BLOCK: And the list of what he was taking, it's pretty much a whole pharmacy that he was able to take, able to get prescriptions for or to buy off the street.

BRANCH: Yeah, absolutely. He, in the end, he became addicted to Ambien and also to oxycodone. But he was also prescribed dozens of other pills and drugs over the course of his career. And you know, anything to kind of keep him on the ice. And the motivation was simply we got to keep this guy on the ice, give him a shot, if we can give him some pills. Prop him up there because the team needs him.

And, you know, it must be serious if Derek's saying that it hurts 'cause Derek has a high threshold of pain. He used to never come to us so it must be serious. We need to help him out. And so it just sort of kept coming and kept coming, and undid him eventually.

BLOCK: Well, in the end as we mentioned Derek Boogaard died. He was 28, died of an accidental overdose. But leading up to that you describe clear symptoms of brain injury from repeated concussion over the years - that he was losing memory, he was acting irrationally, he was in his apartment with the shades all down. How many concussions do you figure, does his family figure, he had over his years in hockey?

BRANCH: Well, it's interesting. You know, if you look at the medical files there may have been three. If you ask his family there may have been 12 or 15. At one point, in the last year of Derek's life a doctor asked him, you know, how many concussions have you had? And he said I don't know a couple.

And the doctor said well you understand a concussion is basically when you're hit in the head and things go dark for a moment, where you sort of lose consciousness just for a split second. You kind of, you know, shake your head and go whoa what just happened? And Derek said oh well geez if you put it that way then I've probably had hundreds. So it really, it's hard to know how many Derek had.

The disease that he was found to have postmortem, which is chronic traumatic encephalopathy - which we call CTE - is something that doctors believe is not caused by one or two big concussions but it's caused by many hits, sub concussive hits. So each of those punches may have not really been a concussion by, you know, medical definitions but may have contributed to his brain disease.

BLOCK: Which does lead to a question about what should the NHL do about fighting in the game? It is considered an integral part of the game in the league. What does the commissioner say about that?

BRANCH: The NHL has taken an interesting stance on it and that is to do basically nothing. They feel that it is an integral part of the game. They don't say it's there because it's popular, although, they will say hey we've done some opinion polls and people seem to like it. But they do think, you know, without fighting there might be some other sort of serious injuries. The question is that there's not a whole lot of proof that fighting lowers the rest of the injuries. I think they think it's popular. You know, the NHL believes that they've been ahead of the curve in terms of concussion awareness, at least ahead of the other leagues here in North America.

But I think they have a difficult argument when it comes to fighting. And that is, you're allowing two men to basically bare knuckle brawl - in front of a crowd that's cheering, in front of officials who stand and watch, in front of players who stand and watch - and let them basically try to beat each other up with a knockout punch. And they're punching each other in the head. You know, if you're going to argue that you've done all you can to prevent concussions, I'm not sure how you can say that fighting is a part of that.

BLOCK: John Branch. He's the author of "Boy On Ice: The Life And Death Of Derek Boogaard." John, thanks very much.

BRANCH: Thank you, Melissa, my pleasure.

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