It’s December, and time for the nation’s newspapers to clear the decks of any Pulitzer-worthy material they might have hanging around, but trust me on this: The three-part series the New York Times just concluded, about Derek Boogaard, a recently deceased hockey goon, is worth the time it takes to read it beginning to end.
Part 1 is here, with links to the rest of the series at the top of the page. I know some of you might have difficulty accessing NYT material, so it’s worth a Google to see if a non-restricted newspaper is running it off the NYT wire service. It’s really that good, a heartbreaking look at a boy who rose in the NHL by… well, this sums it up pretty well:
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.
Boogaard’s death was from an overdose of the prescription painkillers he took to live with his many injuries, although he had crossed the line into addiction some time before, and was in fact just out of rehab when he swallowed the pills that killed him this past May. The package has many links to supplemental materials, including YouTube videos of his most infamous fights. I’m not a hockey fan, but it reminded me of this two-year-old piece, most likely also behind a paywall, called “Why the Red Wings Don’t Fight,” about the Detroit team’s rise to greatness on the Russian model of the game, emphasizing well-rounded players in every position, rather than the stars-plus-enforcers North American lineup:
Fights have always broken out during physical hockey games, but in the 1960s it became a strategy. The Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers used intimidation to win Stanley Cups between 1969 and 1975. Without players who specialized in fisticuffs, a team’s star players would be beaten to a pulp.
…Since the bloody ’80s, the NHL has been struggling to scale back fighting. It instituted penalties for coming off the bench for a fight and extra penalties for instigating. After the lockout season of 2004-2005, the league made strides to speed up the game by increasing enforcement of hooking and interference penalties. These measures further decreased the need for “enforcers.” Fighting plummeted in the 2005-2006 season. The Red Wings had 28 fights in 2003-04 and only six in 2005-06. This season the team has so little need for fisticuffs that it opted to populate its fourth line with skill players, leaving enforcer Darren McCarty in the minors for most of the season.
The bomb lurking inside Boogaard was the brain damage he sustained in all those throwdowns; he was one of the growing number of athletes whose brain was left to science to study, and what the pathologists found was sobering:
Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as C.T.E., a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease. It is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It can be diagnosed only posthumously, but scientists say it shows itself in symptoms like memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, even addiction.
More than 20 dead former N.F.L. players and many boxers have had C.T.E. diagnosed. It generally hollowed out the final years of their lives into something unrecognizable to loved ones.
And now, the fourth hockey player, of four examined, was found to have had it, too.
But this was different. The others were not in their 20s, not in the prime of their careers.
The scientists on the far end of the conference call told the Boogaard family that 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 NHL’s response? “Not enough evidence” to draw a link between repeated concussions and CTE. Keep digging, boys.
As I said, I’m not a hockey fan, but there sure are a lot of them here, and the Wings are probably the first or second most-beloved team in a city full of them. I’ve never heard a fan complain that the team doesn’t fight enough, and the few people I recommended that WSJ column to nodded in agreement, and said the team doesn’t need to fight, because they play so well.
So why are hockey teams still fighting? One of you who knows better will have to ‘splain that one.
Anyway, a truly sad story still worth reading.
So let’s turn on a dime, shall we? We need a little funny up in here:
Tom & Lorenzo take on a few of the truly astonishing outfits worn to the premiere of “W.E.,” the new Madonna movie, which I am PISSED has not dropped a trailer yet, so I can laugh and mock it. Oh, no, wait: It has. And it looks just about as awful as promised. That Madonna — so transgressive!
One of those roundups of a dozen or so helpful household hints, most of which I’d never heard of before, many of them pure genius.
And to come full circle, a great read from Deadspin on another figure from the sporting world who likely had brain damage, but the more conventional, self-inflicted kind. Never heard of George Kimball before. Thanks, Cooz.
And that’s it for me. Happy Wednesday, all.