Two years ago the NHL, fans and the hockey world were saddened to learn of the death of Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers, and formerly of the Minnesota Wild. Derek will primarily be remembered as a member of the Wild organization where he spent 2 seasons playing with the AHL Houston Aeros and 5 years with the NHL Minnesota Wild. Boogey, as he was known, was a monster on the ice and a gentleman off it. He was and continues to be one of the best liked players ever to pull on a Wild sweater. I’ll never forget my first glimpse of him as a player when the Houston Aeros played the Grand Rapids Griffins, in an AHL game held at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. That was the only pro hockey in St. Paul that season. I remember a giant player skating around crushing the opposition with some huge hits. He had an assist that game and of course dropped the gloves. He fought the Griffin’s Vandermeer in a lengthy bout, clearly won by the Boogey-Man. That fight earned one of the largest ovations of the night from the crown of over 12,200 hockey starved fans. That was for most Wild fans our introduction to Derek Boogaard, the enforcer of the future for Minnesota. I’m not here to argue the pros and cons of fighting and it’s place in the game of hockey. That’s a debate for another day. Today I’m going to discuss Derek Boogaard and the cause of his demise.
Derek was always one of the nicest Wild players off the ice. He was always ready to sign and autograph, pose for a picture or just chat for a moment. He seemed almost shy at times and wowed by the adoration and admiration fans showed him. I had the pleasure of meeting him on several occasions at Wild events, autograph sessions, and even one on one. One day I had stopped by the Excel on a non game day and encountered Derek walking along a River Centre hallway on his way to practice. I stopped him and he proceeded to talk with me for several minutes. Here was the Wild’s tough guy, a menacing force on the ice standing in front of me in street clothes and smallish wire rimmed glasses with that wry smile on his face. I was not a writer at that time just an fan. He could have just brushed me off with the “Gotta go practice time”, but he didn’t. We chatted on and he even remembered my wife and I from a previous event. Our game attire, shall we say, stood out. During our conversation he thanked me for my support of him and the Wild team. We talked about an up coming game and general hockey talk. At the end of our chat he said, “and be sure to tell your wife I said Hi.” We parted and he descended the steps into the lower levels of the arena. I was struck as I walked away at how genuine and pleasant he had been. Over the years I have encountered several other Wild players in similar situations and for the most part they have been amiable, with a couple of exceptions. At the time of our conversation I did not know that we would share more than that chance meeting in common.
Fast forward to May 13th 2010. The news broke that Derek Boogaard had been found dead in his Minneapolis apartment. Shock rippled through the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers fan community. How, people asked, did it happen? He was so young, so healthy, etc. Theories abounded from undiagnosed heart problems to other medical issues to some things much darker such as drugs and alcohol. There was a memorial service organized by some devoted fans that grew to include hundreds of fans, former team mates, front office staff and even the Boogaard family at the Excel Energy Center. It was a moving event with varied speakers and tributes. At that time we only knew that Derek was dead and family, friends and fans were in mourning and united in their grief. It was not until later that we learned that Derek Boogaard died from a lethal combination of prescription pain killers and alcohol. An accidental self administered combination of the two. At the time of his death Derek was on his first days out of a rehabilitation clinic. He was there to address an addiction to the same prescription pain killers that killed him. It was also revealed that this was his second such stint to a rehab facility. It was also revealed after an examination of his brain the Derek suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. One of the major problems with CTE is that the only way to diagnose it is to examine the brain postmortem. There is not a test in existence at this time that can determine if someone is suffering from CTE. This is a degenerative disease for which there is no cure. CTE comes from repeated brain trauma such as concussions and even less serious but repetitive blows to the head. Some people with CTE can display symptoms such as such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression.
Derek Boogaard was an addict with a brain injury. That’s a tough combination to deal with, especially when you only know about one. Even tougher when you live in the public eye and are expected to be tough, strong, and nearly invincible. I don’t know what personal demons Derek Boogaard dealt with. I can’t tell you whether or not Derek felt he was truly an addict and needed help. His employer and those around him recognized there was a problem and offered some help. As anyone who has ever been around an addict can attest, helping an addict who doesn’t want help is a frustrating, maddening and failing proposition. Derek Boogaard relapsed just hours after leaving the facility he had been in. Some people blame his demise on the fact that his brother gave him the pills that, coupled with alcohol, lead to his death. If Derek didn’t get the pills there he would have obtained them somewhere else in short order. It has been documented that Derek bought pain killers on the black market to supplement the prescriptions he received from legitimate sources. An addict will find his drug of choice when he wants it. Period. When an addict wants his substance he will do anything in his power to obtain it. It is the primary thought in their head, morning, noon, and night. When they wake up it’s the first thing they think of. When sleep overtakes them it is the last thought on their mind. An addiction consumes you. When the substance is obtained and ingested all is good or though it seems. If you take away the substance the addict will not be happy to say the least. They will hide it, stockpile it, do whatever it takes to preserve their supply. They will lie, cheat, and steal to protect it. They will tell you anything and say everything to make things go smoother and protect their addiction. The result of an addiction is wreckage. The ultimate result of an addiction is death. If the addict and the addiction is not treated, if it allowed to continue unchecked the addict will die. Until the addict truly wants help and is ready to do whatever it takes to stop, all measures will fail. Addiction is a problem with the mind, body and soul. Without addressing all three areas the addict will return to the substance that provides that feeling they crave. Forcing them will not work in the long term, it may provide a temporary respite but not a solution. The addict has to want change more than they have wanted anything before in their life or change will not come. I say all these things from a position of some authority. I am a recovering alcoholic and addict. I have spent the last 10 years, 10 months and 5 days sober. I am lucky to be alive today, blessed many would say. I destroyed a career, relationships, and caused a myriad of problems during the course of my addiction. Until I wanted to get better nothing would work. I made those bad decisions and I have to deal with the results along with those I affected. Addiction does not happen in a vacuum, it affects the addict along with those whose lives he touches. Derek Boogaard paid the ultimate price for his addiction, those around him, those close to him paid a dear price too.
Addiction is a problem in all facets of society. The costs, both personal and financial are immense. In the NHL addiction is more of a problem than most fans know. The NHL and the NHLPA will not release numbers and specifics citing privacy concerns. It’s also because it’s not good for the image of the league. Yes, there is drug testing in the NHL. There is a specific list of substances that are tested for, both legal and illegal. Beyond that list and until a “problem” arises there is little overview. Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem from young to old and rich to poor. The availability and perceived safety of prescription drugs are part of the problem. The landscape is littered with athletes who have suffered an injury and struggle with, or have struggled with addiction to prescription pain killers or other prescription drugs. If you think it’s easy to obtain a prescription pain killers from a doctor, try being a professional athlete where everything happens behind closed doors and it is in the teams best interests to get you back playing as soon as possible, if not sooner. Injuries are listed as upper body and lower body, treatments are rarely disclosed and weakness in any form is frowned upon. The message to NHL athletes is get back on the ice as soon as you can or we will toss you on the trash heap like a broken stick. Team doctors are under pressure to get players back as soon as possible and if an extra shot or two or some more pills will achieve that, so be it. This is not a simple problem and there is not a simple solution. The problem did not develop overnight but some sort of change needs to be made now. Oversight needs to be increased. Pain relief methods beyond shots, pills and patches need to be made available and encouraged. The sheer quantity of prescription pain killers dispensed by team doctors across the NHL is staggering and the difference between legitimate need and over-prescription is very difficult to discern. I am not saying that anyone other than Derek Boogaard is directly responsible for his addiction and eventual death. No one forced him to take those pills and go out with his brothers drinking the night he died. The first thing any pharmacist or doctor will tell you when dealing with prescription pain killers is, Do Not Drink Alcohol While Taking This Medication. None, zero, zip, nada! One can argue that he had been given the tools with which begin and continue his recovery and simply failed to use them. The ease though with which these powerful drugs were made available, encouraged, and consumed contributed to the addiction problem suffered by Derek Boogaard. The layers of secrecy and concealment, surrounding the amounts of pain killers dispensed, need to be peeled back and changes made to benefit the health and safety of the athletes in the NHL. The privacy of the players involved needs to be preserved. The decision of whether or not to publicly disclose a problem as personal as addiction must be left up to the player. The oversight of those involved in prescribing and dispensing these drugs must be what changes and accountability increased dramatically. Now there is a lawsuit that has been filed by the estate of Derek Boogaard against the NHL for wrongful death. I’m not here to weigh in on the merits of such legal action. I do however think the publicity generated by this legal action will bring the problem of prescription drug abuse and addiction within professional sports and the NHL into the spotlight. If this lawsuit is what it takes for the NHL to seriously address this issue within the teams and players under it’s control then full steam ahead. No lawsuit can ease the pain of Derek Boogaard’s death, but it may be just what is needed to prevent some other player from needlessly dying from an addiction to NHL and team prescribed pain killers.