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Books | Sports

October 3, 2014

An Enforcer's Tragic End

In his new book, John Branch chronicles the death of hockey player Derek Boogaard.

Elisa Mala

Maybe it's because he died at 28, the age that I am right now. But there is something devastating about Derek Boogaard's story. The unlikely rise through the upper ranks of hockey, where his 6'8" frame eclipsed any hope of becoming anything other than what he was: an enforcer. The way he died, overdosing on painkillers in 2011 while earning millions from the New York Rangers. That at the end of the day, the people Derek Boogaard loved most might have felt like any player he pummeled: with a full view of the destruction that was about to unfold, but without any way of stopping it.

John Branch (photo credit: Catherine Branch).
"His fans thought he was invincible. They thought he was heroic. They thought he was fearless. And he was none of those things."

John Branch (photo credit: Catherine Branch).

More than sports, addiction, chronic traumatic encephalopathy—a degenerative brain disease that Derek developed from his many concussions—or even the subject himself, the book Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard is a chronicle of pain. Meticulously assembled by John Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter for the New York Times, it takes a hard, unflinching look at the price Boogaard paid to achieve his dream, and what that might mean for anyone who cheered him along the way.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and condensed for length, Branch tells Gelf about when there isn't fighting in hockey, a funny thing that happened when he walked into a bar, and why his intended audience isn't one you'd expect: his mom.

Gelf Magazine: There are many tragedies in sports, some more tragic than Boogaard's. Why turn this particular story into a book?

John Branch: Derek's story strikes me because of all the different angles. He was famous for the simple reason that he could fight. People have no idea how complex that is. His life touched upon so many issues that are part of sports right now: concussions, addictions, violence, fame, money, and the machinery of sports and how we treat the athletes in it.

Gelf Magazine: Boy on Ice paints a picture of an enforcer who was 6'8" but scared of roller coasters, who played with bulldogs and wanted to have his own, and who always looked for his parents in the stands. What surprised you most during the course of researching his life?

John Branch: Among many other surprises, what surprised me most was just what he was dealing with by himself. His fans thought he was invincible. They thought he was heroic. They thought he was fearless. And he was none of those things. What I know now is that most people in his position are none of those things.

Gelf Magazine: What is the biggest tragedy of the Derek Boogaard story?

John Branch: The biggest tragedy is that he died alone. And that he seemed to feel alone. He was given everything that he thought he ever wanted, and in the end, it wasn't enough.

Gelf Magazine: And yet, his family didn't seem surprised.

John Branch: In the back of their minds, [Derek's family members] knew that he was in trouble. Over the last year or two [of Derek's life], his father always feared that the call would come. So when it did, his first emotional response was, "I knew that was going to happen."

Gelf Magazine: In the aftermath of Derek's death, his family filed a wrongful death suit against the NHL. What effect might this have on the NHL?

John Branch: It may take years to wind its way through the court system. As a practical matter, I think the NHL's bigger concern is with a class-action lawsuit filed by many former players, arguing that the NHL was not forthright about the dangers of concussions. It's similar to what the NFL faced, from something like 4,500 players, which led to the major settlement recently. So far, about 200 ex-NHL players have signed on, and it will only grow. At some point, if it follows the arc of the NFL, the NHL will have to fight or settle.

Gelf Magazine: From your book, I get the sense that it was a systemic failure. But was one entity more to blame than the others?

John Branch: It's a good question, and in many ways, I avoid it in the book. If people want to debate it, they should. My takeaway is that in hockey and in other sports, we have a huge structure to find these kids, to develop these kids, to pay these kids, and to promote these kids. Once they are of little use to us, we find them very disposable.
As you say, I think it's a systemic issue. But people will read this and have different opinions on who should be blamed. Some people will blame Derek, saying that he knew what we was getting into. Some people will blame his family. [Derek's brother, Aaron, pleaded guilty to interfering with the crime scene after Derek overdosed.] Some people will blame the scouts. Some will blame the team doctors. Some will blame the NHL's substance-abuse program. And some will blame fans for cultivating and encouraging this environment.

Gelf Magazine: In 2008, when New York Rangers left wing Sean Avery relentlessly screened New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, the NHL changed its definition of unsportsmanlike conduct almost overnight. Why is it easier to change rules for screening than for fighting, which is arguably more dangerous?

John Branch: I think that a lot of people in the NHL and in the junior leagues think that fighting is good for the game. They think that it deters other types of violence on the ice, although there's no proof of that. They think it makes the game more popular, and they have no incentive to change it unless it involves the safety of their players.

Gelf Magazine: So what would it take for the NHL to change the rule on fighting?

John Branch: It will probably take a death on the ice at the NHL level. Youth leagues are starting to question [fighting], so that will peter up. There have been games where players have been knocked out and had to be carried away. There's been a death on the ice at the amateur level in Canada. But it'll have to be headlining SportsCenter [for changes to be made to the game].

Gelf Magazine: Fighting is practically nonexistent across all levels of women's hockey. Is there anything the NHL might take away from that, or is it an entirely unfair comparison?

John Branch: I think it's fair, but the more apt comparison is to men's international competition (like the Olympics) and to NHL playoff hockey. Many hockey fans tout those as the best hockey played, yet fighting is virtually nonexistent. It shows that fighting isn't necessary.
Interestingly, we've seen women's hockey get more physical. A brawl between the US and Canada teams drew a ton of attention.

Gelf Magazine: Like Rob Ford, the crack-smoking former mayor of Toronto, the brutal aspects of hockey turn the stereotype of the polite Canadian on its head. Why does Canadian culture, which is typically pacifist, allow for the violence?

John Branch: A lot of it is simply tradition. That's just the way the sport is played. Fighting is actually bigger at the youth level in Western Canada—in Saskatchewan and Alberta and Manitoba—so there's a frontier aspect, as well. We don't see fighting in lots of other places. I think there's been sort of an undercurrent of thinking in Canada, that, "This is our game: It's tough and hard-nosed. Other countries might not play it that way, but we're going to put our stamp in this game."

Gelf Magazine: A few weeks ago, two men—Oscar Johnson, a physician's assistant, and Jordan Hart, a former minor league player—were charged in connection with providing the painkillers that led to Derek Boogaard's overdose. Apparently, Johnson hadn't even examined Hart before writing him multiple prescriptions for painkillers. Is overmedicating players common? How does it compare to other sports?

John Branch: Hard to know. In that case, it's hard to imagine that Johnson thought that the thousands of pills were all for Hart. And given the (alleged) number of pills we're talking, they weren't all for Derek Boogaard. There must have been other buyers—maybe non-hockey players. I don't know how you'd break it down by sport. But how many Jordan Harts are out there? How many Oscar Johnsons? I'd imagine there are plenty.

Gelf Magazine: Have you ever been on prescription painkillers yourself?

John Branch: No. Aspirin. Occasionally Advil. I've been lucky that way.

Gelf Magazine: You had mentioned that you wanted to write the type of book that your mom would enjoy—a sports book for people who might not be fans of hockey, or even sports. What's been her reaction?

John Branch: She hasn't seen it! She ordered it through Amazon. I had no real interest in writing another sports books or another sports biography. In some sense, they bore me. I think they can be a little bit cliched. I wanted to write a book for people who aren't big hockey fans. The coolest thing in the world would be to have my mother host [Boy on Ice] at her book club, because I don't think they've done a sports book before.

Gelf Magazine: How did you decide on the title Boy On Ice?

John Branch: In the New York Times, there was a three-part series on Derek Boogaard—the whole thing was called "Punched Out." I wanted to separate it a bit from the newspaper series and not name it the same thing. It was Matt Weiland at W.W. Norton who threw out "Boy on Ice." We had traded emails and brainstormed for days, but when I heard it [I liked it].

Gelf Magazine: In the acknowledgements, you mentioned interviewing over 60 people who knew Derek Boogaard. Yet one of those interviews, with his ex-fiancee, Erin Russell, happened entirely by chance.

John Branch: Yeah, that was strange. I had tried to reach out to her several times. One day I was in Minnesota, not far from where Derek's apartment was. I walked into a bar to eat and have a beer. The next day I told Aaron, Derek's brother, which bar I had been at. He mentioned that Erin worked there. I described her, and he said, "Yeah, that was probably her." So I went back the same day, found her and said, "I'm John Branch." She said, "Oh."
She was very kind. I interviewed her for an hour or two and I thought she was fantastic. But she has declined to be interviewed since then. It was just one of those serendipitous moments. Of all the places to walk into and of all the people who helped serve my order, it was her and I didn't even know it. Good reporting by me, huh?

Gelf Magazine: What advice would you offer to aspiring sportswriters?

John Branch: Other than "don't do it"?

Gelf Magazine: Yeah, what do you tell the journalism students who say, "I want to be John Branch!"?

John Branch: "That is so sad!" [laughs] My advice would be to tell stories about people, and not about things. That's a bit of a swipe of a current trend in sports reporting, where we sit at our desks and analyze statistics. Sportswriters need to explore the world like anyone else.

Elisa Mala

Elisa Mala has reported from over two dozen countries.

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Article by Elisa Mala

Elisa Mala has reported from over two dozen countries.

Learn more about this author


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