Punched Out

Over six months, The New York Times examined the life and death of the professional hockey player Derek Boogaard, who rose to fame as one of the sport's most feared fighters before dying at age 28.  Originally published in the New York Times in December, 2011.

Derek Boogaard was scared. He did not know whom he would fight, just that he must.

Opportunity and obligation had collided, the way they can in hockey.

His father bought a program the night before. Boogaard scanned the roster, checking heights and weights. He later recalled that he barely slept.

A trainer in the dressing room offered scouting reports. As Boogaard taped his stick in the hallway of the rink in Regina, Saskatchewan, he was approached by one of the few players bigger than he was. Boogaard had never seen him before. He did not know his name.

“I’m going to kill you,” the player said.

The scrimmage began. A coach tapped Boogaard on the shoulder. Boogaard knew what it meant. He clambered over the waist-high wall and onto the ice.

He felt a tug on the back of his jersey. It was time.

The players flicked the padded gloves from their hands. They removed the helmets from their heads. They raised their fists and circled each other. They knew the choreography that precedes the violence.

Boogaard took a swing with his long right arm. His fist smacked the opponent’s face and broke his nose. Coaches and scouts laughed as they congratulated Boogaard.

He was 16.

Boogaard was exhilarated, exhausted, relieved. Maybe the fear was extinguished, but it always came back, like the flame of a trick candle. One fight ended, another awaited. It was a cycle that commanded the rest of his life.

There is no athlete quite like the hockey enforcer, a man and a role viewed alternately as noble and barbaric, necessary and regrettable. Like so many Canadian boys, Boogaard wanted to reach the National Hockey League on the glory of goals. That dream ended early, as it usually does, and no one had to tell him.

But big-time hockey has a unique side entrance. Boogaard could fight his way there with his bare knuckles, his stick dropped, the game paused and the crowd on its feet. And he did, all the way until he became the Boogeyman, the N.H.L.’s most fearsome fighter, a caricature of a hockey goon rising nearly 7 feet in his skates.

Over six seasons in the N.H.L., Boogaard accrued three goals and 589 minutes in penalties and a contract paying him $1.6 million a year.

On May 13, his brothers found him dead of an accidental overdose in his Minneapolis apartment. Boogaard was 28. His ashes, taking up two boxes instead of the usual one, rest in a cabinet at his mother’s house in Regina. His brain, however, was removed before the cremation so that it could be examined by scientists.

Boogaard rarely complained about the toll — the crumpled and broken hands, the aching back and the concussions that nobody cared to count. But those who believe Boogaard loved to fight have it wrong. He loved what it brought: a continuation of an unlikely hockey career. And he loved what it meant: vengeance against a lifetime of perceived doubters and the gratitude of teammates glad that he would do a job they could not imagine.

He did not acknowledge the damage to his brain, the changes in his personality, even the addictions that ultimately killed him in the prime of his career. If he did recognize the toll, he dismissed it as the mere cost of getting everything he ever wanted.

The Biggest Kid, but No Bully

There were times, as a boy, that Derek Boogaard’s skates broke, the rivets attaching the blades giving way under his heft. His awkward size and movement led to teases from teammates and taunts from fans. He heard the whispers of parents saying that this oversize boy — too big, too clumsy — had no rightful place on the team.

Boogaard never fully escaped such indignities. But there was one place where he could reliably get away.

 Youth hockey in western Canada is a perpetual series of long drives across dark and icy landscapes. For Boogaard, that often meant riding shotgun in his father’s police car.

It meant stopping after school for gas and a Slurpee as the winter dusk settled early on the prairie. It meant a postgame meal of rink burgers, the snack-stand staple that warmed the belly against the bitter cold. It meant a radio usually tuned to hockey — maybe the Toronto Maple Leafs, Derek’s favorite team, or the hometown junior league team, the Melfort Mustangs. And it meant falling asleep in the dark of a winter’s night, awakened by the warm light of the family garage.

“I think the best part of playing hockey for ages 3 until 16 was the little road trips with dad,”  Boogaard handwrote a few years ago, part of 16 pages of notes found in his New York apartment after his death.

He remembered the blue and white jerseys of his first team. He remembered his grandfather tapping the glass to say hello. He remembered scoring his first goal — against his own goalie.

“I remember when I would sit in the bench I would always look for my mom or my dad in the stands,” Boogaard wrote.

During the first shift of his first game, Boogaard skated all the way to one end, alone, away from the puck and the other children, looking for his family.

“And he finally saw us,” his father, Len Boogaard, said. “He had a big smile on his face and he was waving at us.”

Derek Boogaard was born on June 23, 1982. He was the first of four children of Len and Joanne Boogaard, three boys then a girl, spaced evenly two years apart.

Len Boogaard, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, mostly worked his beats in small towns on the  Saskatchewan prairie. R.C.M.P. policy dictated a move every few years so that familiarity in one town did not breed comfort or corruption. It cast his family, like those of other officers who are part of the sprawling Canadian carousel of small-town law enforcement, into roles as perpetual outsiders.

The Boogaards lived in Hanley, Saskatchewan, population 500, when Derek was born. After a couple of years near Toronto, the family moved to Herbert, Saskatchewan, a town of fewer than 1,000 people, predominantly Mennonite. Whether Len Boogaard was issuing traffic tickets or investigating domestic disturbances, the grievances “would ultimately come back to the kids at some point,” he said.

No one was more affected than Derek, who spent a childhood trying to fit in. The biggest kid in class, shy and without many friends, Boogaard was often tagged as a troublemaker and dismissed as a distraction. A grade school teacher, the family said, routinely relegated Boogaard to a closet.

Boogaard had a restless, inquisitive mind, but struggled to follow directions. He labored through reading assignments. On an application for a hockey team in ninth grade, the Boogaards said that Derek had an average grade of 65 percent. They also noted that he was 6 feet 4 inches and 210 pounds.

He was hardly a bully. Paradoxically, he was picked on largely because he was so big. At age 11, after another family move, he was quickly challenged to a schoolyard fight by a boy named Evan Folden, who considered himself king of the school jocks.

Boogaard won his first fight. He bloodied Folden’s nose.

He was continually targeted by older kids and challenged by classmates wanting to build a reputation. Even his younger brother Ryan and Ryan’s posse of friends ganged up on him, like Lilliputians on Gulliver.

The family feared for Boogaard’s safety because he often acted without considering the outcome. He once moved a friend’s new trampoline close to the garage, climbed to the roof and belly-flopped onto the canvas. The springs broke, the frame collapsed and Boogaard hit the ground with a thud, bruising his ribs.

“There were some cognitive issues and behavioral issues that made it difficult, as well, trying to understand what he was doing sometimes,” Len Boogaard said. “He would do stuff and he wouldn’t appear to know the consequences of what he was doing — or why he was doing it, what sort of impact it would have on him or other people around him.”

The family was determined to provide positive reinforcement. Hockey was one way.

“It’s something that he really enjoyed to do,” Joanne Boogaard said. “And because he struggled so much in school, we bent over backwards to give him every opportunity that you could for him to do what he liked to do.”

That is why, after a separation from Len Boogaard when Derek was 16, she took out a second mortgage on the house, to finance the sports her children played. It is why Len Boogaard repeatedly drove Derek 90 minutes each way to Saskatoon for skating lessons, then boxing lessons to teach him to be a better fighter on the ice.

Len Boogaard, a quiet man smoldering with a cop’s intensity, sometimes saw that his son needed a boost. So he would pull into an icy parking lot and spin the police car in a dizzying series of doughnuts. Or he would park at the edge of a pasture and moo at the cows through the loudspeaker. Or, with the back seat filled with boys, he would shout for them to look up before hitting the brakes, smashing the smiling faces into the clear partition and sending the boys into shrieks of laughter.

Derek Boogaard loved that part of hockey.

A Memorable Night in Melfort

Melfort, Saskatchewan, has about 5,000 residents. It is surrounded by horizons of flat, windswept fields, covered in grain in the summer and snow in the winter, crosshatched every few miles by two-lane roads. It rests under the dome of an impossibly wide sky, pierced by the occasional water tower or silo.

The Boogaards and their four children arrived in 1993, when Derek turned 11, moving into a split-level house at 316 Churchill Drive. There were hockey games in the street, wrestling matches on the front lawn, video games in the basement and family dinners around a cramped kitchen table.

“It seemed so small because they were all so big,” said Folden, who became a teammate and friend of Boogaard’s after their schoolyard fight.

They were rough-and-tumble days, and even Krysten — the youngest, on her way to 6 feet 5 — was pulled into the scrums. “Cage raging” began in elementary school and continued in hockey dressing rooms as teenagers.

“It’s where you put your gloves and helmet on and just go at it like a hockey fight and the loser is the one on the ground,” Boogaard wrote. “This is where you kinda learn how to punch.”

In eighth grade, Boogaard had an assignment: Describe what you want to do for a living. He wrote that he wanted to play in the N.H.L., envisioning himself among the class of gritty players with scoring punch, like his hero, Wendel Clark, who grew up in Saskatchewan and became captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The teacher asked Boogaard for an alternate plan. Boogaard said he did not have one. Their ensuing debate landed Boogaard in detention.

“He didn’t have a Plan B,” Len Boogaard said. “Plan A was to play hockey. There was no backup plan.”

And what if hockey did not work out?

“I have no idea,” his father said. And neither did anyone else.

Boogaard’s size, if not his skill, provided roster spots on top-level youth teams. At 13, a team photograph showed Boogaard among the tall boys in the back row, with a round, cherub face. Two years later, it was as if Boogaard had been stretched by a rolling pin. He towered over his teammates. His knees ached from the growth spurt.

Floyd Halcro, a coach who helped talk Boogaard into playing after he had quit hockey at age 14, heard all the concerns, from parents of teammates and opponents alike.

“He would get penalties that were not, in any way, shape or form, his fault,” Halcro said. “I’m 5 foot 9, and a little guy my size would take a run at Derek and run into his elbow, and the refs would give him a penalty. He got so many penalties because he was 6 foot 3, 6 foot 4 at that age. And he was actually picked on by other teams, by other referees, other communities, simply because of his size. Derek would certainly stick up for the team, he would stick up for his teammates, but wasn’t mean at all.”

That is what made one particular episode so memorable. The old rink at the corner of Stovel Avenue and Manitoba Street, covered in pea-green aluminum siding, squats low next to Melfort’s curling club. Built in 1931, Main Arena has low-hanging fluorescent lights above the ice and orange-glow heaters above three rows of bleachers.

Exactly what happened that winter’s night has been left to the rusty memories of the few dozen in attendance. This much is clear: Melfort was losing badly, and 15-year-old Derek Boogaard was suddenly inside the other team’s bench, swinging away at opposing players.

“It felt like I had a force feild on me,” Boogaard wrote. (His notes had occasional misspellings.)

Players scattered like spooked cats, fleeing over the wall or through the open gates.

“He had gone ballistic,” Len Boogaard said. “It was something I hadn’t seen before.”

Eventually subdued and sent to the dressing room, Boogaard re-emerged in his street clothes. He sidled up to his seething father, who was dressed in his police uniform.

“Dad just kinda asked me what the [expletive] are you doing?” Boogaard wrote. “So I stood by him for the rest of the game.”

Len Boogaard nodded toward the few unfamiliar faces in the bleachers. There were about 10 scouts from teams in the Western Hockey League, a junior league that is a primary gateway to the N.H.L. Among them were two men representing the Regina Pats — the chief scout, Todd Ripplinger, and the general manager, Brent Parker.

“All the Western League scouts’ jaws are down like this,” Parker said. His mouth fell open at the memory.

Ripplinger and Parker scribbled a note saying that the Regina Pats wanted to add Derek Boogaard to their roster. They stopped at the Hi-Lo Motor Inn on the edge of Melfort and used the fax machine to send the note to the W.H.L. office in Calgary. Then they drove three hours back to Regina.

“Me and Brent talked all the way home about how we’d never seen anything like that before in our lives,” Ripplinger said.

Ripplinger arranged to visit the Boogaard family a few days later. Boogaard sheepishly made just one request: Could the Pats provide some extra-large hockey shorts?

Derek Boogaard had outgrown his.

Learning His Future: His Fists

The Western Hockey League has 22 teams flung across western Canada and the northwestern United States. The players, ages 16 to 20, have their expenses paid, receive a small stipend for spending money and can earn scholarships to Canadian colleges.

Most harbor hopes of playing professionally. On a typical roster of two dozen, a few will advance to the National Hockey League. And in today’s N.H.L., about one of every five players once played in the Western Hockey League.

It is one of the three top junior leagues in Canada, the others based in Ontario and Quebec. In many regards, the W.H.L. is the toughest. Not only are franchises stretched 1,500 miles apart in some instances, making travel part of the teenage tribulation, but they also have produced some of hockey’s most notorious enforcers — from Tony Twist and Stu Grimson to Colton Orr and Steve MacIntyre. Veteran executives recall games where the only way to stop the brawls was to shut off the arena lights.

The teams are not affiliated with N.H.L. teams, so player development is less a goal than profit. Fighting, an accepted and popular part of the game, is seen as a way to attract fans.

Efforts to ban fighting in the N.H.L. have long been stymied, in part by the popularity and tradition of it in the junior and minor leagues. Web sites are devoted to the spectacle, often providing blow-by-blow descriptions, declaring winners and ranking the teenage fighters.

Boogaard stepped into this culture when he was 16. The unwritten rules were well established.

Both players must agree to the challenge. Gloves are off. Until a few years ago, helmets were removed as both a sign of toughness and consideration to the unprotected knuckles of the combatants. When the leagues made helmet removal illegal, players learned to delicately remove each other’s helmets before the fight began — a concoction of courtesy and showmanship. Players knowingly drifted to the center of the rink. Some, like professional wrestlers, paused to pose or fix their hair.

The reaction of the scouts that winter’s night in Melfort made it clear what to expect when Boogaard went to his first W.H.L. training camp in Regina in the fall. If Boogaard wanted to advance in hockey, he would need his fists.

“He knew,” Ripplinger said. “He was a smart guy. He knew he wasn’t going to be good enough to make it on skills alone, and he used his size to his advantage. I remember him at 16 years old, pushing weights and boxing and stuff like that. He knew his job.”

Boogaard’s first fight was the one-punch nose-breaking knockdown of the reigning tough kid during Regina’s first team scrimmage. But Boogaard, seen as a fighter, not a player, played little during the preseason. Finally, he was told he would play one night in Moose Jaw, against the Pats’ primary rival.

The family drove four hours from Melfort. Ryan Boogaard, two years younger, researched W.H.L. fighters, a brotherly scouting service that continued through Boogaard’s career. He warned Boogaard of a player named Kevin Lapp, rated as the league’s No. 2 fighter. Lapp was nearly 20. Boogaard was 16.

Moments into Boogaard’s first shift, Lapp asked if he was ready. Boogaard said he was. He was not.

He heard the older players in the back of the bus making fun of him on the way home. The next day, Boogaard was reassigned to a lower-division team in Regina.

Len Boogaard told his son he was proud of how far he had made it.

“When all the people in Melfort said that I wasn’t any good,” Derek Boogaard later wrote, “he said I shoved it up their [expletive] already.”

The next team also had little use for Boogaard. During a game at a tournament in Calgary, Boogaard watched teammates take turns on the ice while he sat, unused, on the bench. Frustrated at being forgotten — or viewed as something less than a hockey player — he finally turned to the coach.

“I’m good, I can play,” Boogaard cried. “I’m right here in front of you.”

He later lashed out at the coach in the hallway and quit. Joanne Boogaard came from Saskatchewan to retrieve him. She drove him eight hours home.

“For your son to cry halfway from Calgary to Regina, just to be beside himself with, ‘Why does this have to happen?’ ” Joanne Boogaard said. “All he wants to do is play. All he wanted was to have his fair share, to show people.”

Boogaard thought his hockey career was over. His parents were divorcing. Len Boogaard was reassigned to Regina, the provincial capital. Joanne Boogaard, a Regina native, moved from Melfort, too. Derek Boogaard was failing classes at his new high school. The family worried about the people he hung around.

Just 16, he and two friends got into a fight outside a bar. Boogaard later wrote that they beat up seven 30-year-olds. He came home at 2:30 a.m. with no shirt and his body splattered in blood. One eye was black by morning.

By the fall of 1999, the 17-year-old Boogaard had grown a few more inches, to 6-7. The Regina Pats wanted him back in training camp. Desperate to prove himself, he fought teammates 12 times in four scrimmages.

Called into the coach’s office one day, he thought he would be cut from the team. Instead, he was told he would play that night against the Kelowna Rockets.

Kelowna featured a 6-7 enforcer named Mitch Fritz. Ryan Boogaard provided the scouting report. Fritz had an overhand punch that reminded the Boogaards of the villainous ape in the Donkey Kong video game.

 Fritz won. Boogaard was traded. There is not much use for an enforcer who loses fights.

Struggling With Everything

Prince George, British Columbia, where Boogaard had been dealt, was curious to meet its new teenage enforcer, but not quite prepared. Boogaard’s jersey had to have extra bands of cloth sewn to the bottom and at the end of the sleeves.

After his first practice with the Prince George Cougars, Boogaard met with General Manager Daryl Lubiniecki.

“If you win a few fights in this town you could run for mayor,” Lubiniecki said.

The local paper, The Prince George Citizen, ran a full-page photograph of Boogaard with a Boogeyman theme. The family name had always been pronounced “BOH-guard.” With Derek, some were starting to say it as “BOO-guard.” Boogaard was expected to step into the character, leading with his fists.

“It bothered me,” Joanne Boogaard said. “I didn’t want him to fight. He knew that. He would always be: ‘Oh, Mom, it’s O.K. It’s my job now. It’s what I’m doing.’ ”

Prince George is a city of 80,000 about 500 miles north of Vancouver. It spills out of a valley amid a wrinkled landscape of mountains carpeted with evergreen forests. Bears and moose are common backyard visitors. For the Cougars, the nearest opponent is a six-hour drive. It is not uncommon for the team bus to roll into town at midday after a road trip.

“Prince George, it’s not a dirty town, a rough town, but it’s an honest town,” said  Jim Swanson, the local paper’s former sports editor. “And people didn’t mind seeing two guys who were willing to drop the gloves and go at it.”

For Boogaard, instantly homesick, the season started poorly and got worse.  He lost his first fight to Eric Godard, a future N.H.L. enforcer. Quickly tagged with a reputation for poor balance and wild swings, Boogaard lost most of the rest of his fights, too. Online voters gave him a 6-9-1 record.

His private struggles were just as profound. Junior hockey is considered a rite of passage for Canada’s most promising young players. It is a wild, frightening, competitive and lonely voyage into the world of frenzied fan bases, full-time coaching staffs, cross-province bus travel and host families, known as billets.

Boogaard got tangled in all of it. He was awed by the ferocity of fans. (“That’s the worst I have ever heard people yelling and screaming,” he wrote of a game in Swift Current.) His spirits flagged under the callousness of coaches pressured to win. His inexperience meant that he spent overnight bus trips sitting near the front, not sleeping in the bunks in back reserved for veterans. And Boogaard bounced from one host family to another, unable to create a facsimile of his once-stable home life.

“It was a very long year for me,” Boogaard wrote. “I struggled with everything it seemed.”

Boogaard was hardly a model citizen. He quietly rejected authority figures — teachers, coaches, host families — who treated him with what he sensed was distrust. He disobeyed rules, particularly curfews, and rotated through several families. He never completed 10th grade.

“He was a boy in a man’s body,” said Dallas Thompson, then an assistant coach for Prince George. “Everything was in a hurry. He knew what he wanted to do: He wanted to play in the N.H.L. A lot of things, like school and growing up, got accelerated a bit, and I think it overwhelmed him at times.”

In March 2000, during a home game against Tri-City, Boogaard was hit in the face by an enforcer named Mike Lee. The two were ushered to the penalty box.

“I sat in the box for the five mins and I couldn’t close my mouth,” Boogaard later wrote. “My teeth wouldn’t line up.”

Boogaard went to the hospital, where his jaw was wired shut. The Cougars put him on a liquid diet and sent him home to Regina.

“He was missing a tooth,” Len Boogaard said. “He could fit a straw through there. Then he realized, too, in that space, he could shove food down as well. So he would cut up little pieces of steak and slide it through that hole. Instead of losing weight, he gained about 25, 30 pounds that summer, while his jaw was wired shut. It was incredible.”

The father laughed at the memory.

“He’d go to McDonald’s and shove fries through that little hole there.”

The Phone Rings. It’s the N.H.L.

Boogaard ultimately found refuge at the home of Mike and Caren Tobin, owners of a Prince George jewelry store and longtime hosts for the Cougars. Boogaard trailed a teammate to their house and never wanted to leave.

“Derek was shy — oh my God was he shy,” Mike Tobin said.

The house became Boogaard’s sanctuary. He played video games in the basement and made himself comfortable in the kitchen. He brought other teenagers — not teammates, usually, but assorted misfits he befriended at school. He went to action movies with Mike and tagged along on family outings. He helped run the birthday party when the Tobins’ twin daughters turned 5 and had a giant bounce house in the front yard.

Boogaard felt an instant kinship with Mike Tobin — an affable man who treated Boogaard less like a son than a little brother, who did not finish school but built a successful business, who drove nice cars and had a stately home on the edge of town.

“He hated, hated, hated school,” Tobin said of Boogaard. Imitating Boogaard’s deep voice and sideways smirk, he added: “ ‘Look at Mike. He didn’t finish school and he has a Porsche.’ ”

Boogaard, with a backlog of frustrations, wanted to quit during training camp in 2000. He was 18. He called his father to tell him. He told his teammates he had a plane ticket home. Tobin ultimately persuaded him to stay.

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

“His first year in the W.H.L., I think, it was mostly adjusting to his frame, not knowing how to use his reach,” Ryan Boogaard said. “I think he felt more comfortable with that frame in his second year in the W.H.L., and he did a lot better.”

He quickly  avenged his broken-jaw loss to Mike Lee.  He beat Mat Sommerfeld, a rival who had torn Boogaard’s name from the back of his uniform and  held it over his head after an earlier conquest. One Web site put Boogaard’s record at 18-4-4 in fights that season. One poll named him the toughest player in the W.H.L.’s Western Conference.

When Boogaard took the ice, a buzz rippled through Prince George’s arena, which routinely had capacity crowds of 5,995. One side of the arena would shout “Boo!” and the other would shout “Gaard!”

He scored only once in 61 games for Prince George in 2000-1. He recorded 245 penalty minutes, ranking eighth in the W.H.L. He was, finally, an enforcer, appreciated by one team, feared by all others.

“Whenever he would score or get a point, they would cheer like it was the greatest thing,” Swanson, the former sports editor, said. “It just wasn’t something they expected. Whenever you heard the name Derek Boogaard announced, you expected it to be followed by, ‘Five-minute major for fighting.’ ”

Yet, improbably, Boogaard found himself on the ice during overtime of a playoff game.

“I was standing in front of the net and I turned around and the puck was just sitting there while the goalie thought he had the puck,” Boogaard wrote. “I backhanded it into the net and the game was over. It was an unbelievable feeling. The guys came out of the bench and the place was going nuts. It was the best feeling I had the last 2 years.”

The television announcer called it “a miracle on ice.” It remains a highlight in Prince George hockey history.

“I don’t think I ever saw our rink, or Derek, that happy as the time he scored that goal,” said Thompson, the former assistant coach.

The 2001 N.H.L. draft began on June 23, Boogaard’s 19th birthday. Now of legal drinking age, he spent the night mostly at the Iron Horse Bar in Prince George with a couple of friends.

The next day, the phone rang at Joanne Boogaard’s house in Regina. It was Tommy Thompson, then the chief scout of the Minnesota Wild.

“I told her I was calling from the Minnesota Wild and that we had drafted Derek,” Thompson said. “She clearly was not expecting this call. She said he was already on a team, in Prince George. I said, ‘No, the N.H.L. draft.’ She said: ‘N.H.L.? You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

Caren Tobin answered the ringing telephone in Prince George moments later. She ran upstairs to the bedroom where Boogaard was sleeping. She pounded on the door. Boogaard answered in grunts and asked her to take a message. She coaxed him out of bed and downstairs to the phone.

“In typical Derek style, he goes, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, O.K., yeah, O.K., thanks,’ ” Tobin recalled. With little emotion, he hung up and said he was drafted by the Wild in the seventh round, No. 202 over all. The Tobins screamed in excitement.

Boogaard said he was going back to bed. He had a headache.

A month later, he was in St. Paul, home of the Wild. An arena worker let him into the team dressing room. For the first time, he put on an N.H.L. uniform.

And it fit.