Posted on February 5, 2012 · Posted in Brain Injury

Pro hockey player Derek Boogaard was paid to fight. He made a living as a so-called “enforcer,” doing what other men are arrested for: Beating the living daylights out of his opponents. But ultimately, the game beat him — and his brain.

Last May, Boogaard’s brothers discovered his body in his Minneapolis apartment. He was 28, and the cause of death was an accidental drug overdose. We are all responsible for our own actions, but I’d argue that Boogaard’s particular role in hockey is what ultimately led to his demise.

The New York Times basically made the same case in a three-part, Pulitzer-Prize worthy profile of Boogaard, “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer,” that ran in December.  It’s a shocking, horrifying story about what it means to be an enforcer in the National Hockey League, and what it did to Boogaard’s brain.

The series is especially important because while there’s been a lot of attention paid to the long-term impact of concussions on pro football players, the effect on hockey players has only come into the spotlight recently. Why?

After Boogaard’s death, two other pro hockey enforcers, young guys in their prime, committed suicide. As they say in the newspaper business, three’s a trend. People believed the deaths were no coincidence, and were sad proof of the devastating impact that fighting and concussions have on enforcers.

The first part of The Times series, “A Boy Learns to Brawl,” describes how Boogaard saw hockey as his calling ever since he was a kid in rural Saskatchewan, Canada. His skills playing the game were not particulary pro-worthy, but his fighting ability was.

That installment takes up the entire first page of The Times sports section, illustrated with just a small photo of Boogaard as a 2-year-old.

Part Two of the series, “Blood on the Ice,” chronicles why other players feared 6-foot-8 Boogaard so much. His fist should have been classified as a lethal weapon, like a boxer’s. Just ask Todd Fedoruk about that. He described for The Times how one punch from Boogaard shattered the bones in his face. Doctors had in insert metal plates and mesh on the right side of his head.

“The thought of Boogaard’s right fist kept rival enforcers awake at night,” wrote John Branch, the author of the series.

I’m still astounded by the role that enforcers have in hockey. As The Times pointed out, hockey leagues in other nations don’t permit such fighting. The justification is just absurd, even when the newspaper explains the logic.

“The best way to protect top players from violent onslaughters, teams have long believed, is the threat of more violence, like having a missile in a silo,” according to The Times.

These fights take a toll on enforcers, including Boogaard. They sustain concussions, but try to hide those injuries. They don’t want to ruin their careers by being perceived as prone to head injuries. According to The Times, Boogaard “likely had dozens of concussions before his death in May.”

Like most enforcers, Boogaard’s hands were totally mangled. His father said that when Boogaard fought, his knuckles would be pushed up to his wrists, and had to be “manipulated” back in place, according to The Times. His right hand was covered in scar tissue.

On top of all this, Boogaard began talking prescription pain killers for a back injury. He became addicted, and wound up in rehab. He later underwent surgery on his nose, and was prescribed Percodet. Boogaard was such a huge man, he needed to take eight to 10 of the pills for them to have an effect, The Times reported. He wound up in rehab again.

The photo on Part 2 of the series depicts Boogaard with a bloody nose.

But that’s nothing compared to the photo in Part 3, “A Brain ‘Going Bad.'” It’s a picture of Boogaard’s bright pink brain. His family donated that organ to the Bedford V.A. Medical Center in Massachusetts, for study.

Doctors determined that Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease whose symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s, according to The Times. CTE has been linked to repeated concussions, and has been found in the brains of 20 deceased National Football League players and boxers.

But most of those boxers and football players were older, as were three other hockey players whose brains had been tested and found to have CTE. Boogaard was a young guy.

In a conference call to Boogaard’s family last October, scientists said they “were shocked to see so much damage in someone so young. It appeared to be spreading through his brain. Had Derek Boogaard lived, they said, his condition likely would have worsened into middle-age dementia,” The Times reported.

In detail, that third installment of the series details the personality changes that Boogaard’s family noticed in him, the events leading to his death, and exactly what damage scientists found in his brain.

This series from The Times is a must-read for those interested in sports, concussions and long-term brain injury. It is wonderfully written and researched, an explanation of a tragedy.

But perhaps this quote from the story, from one of the heads of the Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, sums it all up in terms of athletes: “They are trading money for brain cells.”


About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447