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Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard

by John Branch

The sudden death in 2011 of National Hockey League enforcer Derek Boogaard shocked the hockey world in ways that continue to resonate today. Just 28 at the time of his death, Boogaard was the NHL’s most feared pugilist. The official cause of death was an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. But an in-depth series of articles by New York Times reporter John Branch suggested that repeated brawling, and the resulting concussions, had created the conditions for Boogaard’s unhappy end.

boy-on-iceAn autopsy of Boogaard’s brain showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease associated with aging boxers. Branch’s exhaustive reporting rekindled the debate over fighting in hockey, with ex-enforcers stepping forward to testify to the deleterious effects of fighting on their post-retirement lives, only to be mocked by Canada’s most visible defender of on-ice barbarism, Don Cherry (who later apologized).

Branch, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter, expands on his earlier stories in Boy on Ice. This solid, engaging, ultimately disturbing book charts Boogaard’s life from his childhood in Saskatchewan through his junior hockey career in Regina, Prince George, and Medicine Hat to his eventual emergence as the NHL’s reigning heavyweight champ with the Minnesota Wild and, briefly, the New York Rangers. It offers an illuminating look at what it takes to make it in hockey with your fists.

Boogaard managed only three goals and 134 assists in 277 regular-season games in the NHL. In the same period, he rang up 589 penalty minutes and more than 60 fights. And that was in addition to the more than 100 fights as a junior. At 6’7” and upwards of 250 pounds, Boogaard famously (and gruesomely) rearranged fellow tough guy Todd Fedoruk’s face with a single punch.

As a consequence, Boogaard was the Wild’s most beloved player, his brawls serenaded from the stands by choruses of “Boo-gaard, Boo-gaard.” His popularity was enhanced by a gentle, generous, and generally winning off-ice demeanour. What fans didn’t see – and what Branch documents in heartbreaking detail – were the hidden costs, including the escalating diet of sleeping aids and highly addictive painkillers, many prescribed by team physicians, and many more purchased illegally on the street.

Branch’s book should be required reading for pro-fighting pundits, as well as fans who jump out of their seats to cheer when players bludgeon each other senseless.