Profile of Hockey Enforcer Boogaard Stirs Up Old Debate in Canada

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Enforcer, tough guy, goon, all words that describe a hockey player whose job is to protect his start teammates and intimidate opponents. Derek Boogaard was a hockey enforcer. His life and death were the subjects of an in-depth series this week in The New York Times. Boogaard died this past summer from a lethal mix of alcohol and painkillers. He was just shy of his 29th birthday. The New York Times series, written by John Branch has sparked new life into the ongoing conversation about fighting in the NHL. Boogaard grew up in Canada and came up through the junior hockey system there, so we wanted to hear what folks north of the border make of his story. Bruce Dowbiggin is a Canadian sports writer and commentator. Bruce, is Derek Boogaard's story a common one in Canada?

Bruce Dowbiggin: It's all too familiar for people in particular over the last few years, but people who've known about hockey have known this kind of story for many years. I guess the big difference is now that instead of seeing these guys fade off into oblivion, they're dying. And I think that's what's really focusing people on the problem.

Werman: And for those of us that don't know ice hockey that well, what is the job of the enforcer and why would it have lead to drug overdose?

Dowbiggin: Hockey has this kind of internal culture that requires every team to have its own Tony Soprano. It's almost like a mafia kind of thing that we can't trust the police and so we need somebody else to make sure things are squared at the end of the day. In hockey, the players and the management claim they don't trust the officiating to be honest and fair, so we keep a guy around on our side who will go and get justice when the referees don't give us justice. That's basically what Boogaard was doing. He was the hired hand. He was the Tony Soprano of his hockey teams.

Werman: And are a lot of people in Canada who don't usually read The New York TImes reading it for this article, this series?

Dowbiggin: It's gotten a lot of attention. People picked it up I suspect for Times readers and American readers a lot of this is new stuff. For people in Canada who followed the story it's a little bit of old news in the sense that we've been through this cultural portrait in various instances. We've seen enforcers, people like this who come to no good. We also had a sexual abuse scandal within junior hockey in western Canada, and many of the things that the Times piece reflects we've seen in the past that way too.

Werman: Such as what?

Dowbiggin: About the internal culture of hockey, the acceptance of violence, the almost Omerta quality that you've got in hockey about not speaking out when you're put into a situation like Boogaard might have been in, the sense that the community in hockey is bigger than everything and keep your mouth shut in spite of the fact that your life is being broken by it.

Werman: When we hear details in The New York Times article for example, that Boogaard's family gave him both hockey and boxing training, does that shock Canadians?

Dowbiggin: A lot of these guys come from smaller communities, probably guys who were probably physical, maybe even bullies in their hometown. The encouragement of the family to get into the NHL. There's one fellow named Brandt Myhers who was in the NHL for a number of years, went through the rehab program five times. He was an enforcer. I remember asking him and saying well, how did you get to be an enforcer? He said my father. My father told me that the way for me to get into the NHL was to become, to lead the western junior hockey league in fights. And basically his father drew the roadmap.

Werman: Now, The New York Times series also discusses the fact that Boogaard's brain was studied and it was found that he was suffering from CTE, that's the Chronic Traumatic en Encephalopathy. Boogaard was and he had already begun to develop signs of brain damage that might be expected from someone suffering from early dementia in mid-age. Do you think that the danger of brain injury is something that will resonate with parents of Canadian kids that want to be hockey players?

Dowbiggin: Oh, absolutely, I mean that is the big story in the last five years. This has gone from being a sports decision, to being a kitchen table decision by families as to whether they want to put their kids into a sport where this is a, not just a possibility, but maybe even a probability if you play a certain level of hockey. The difference between hockey today and 20 years ago is the difference between cars hitting each other at 30 mph and cars hitting each other at 60 mph. The game is faster. Even the inadvertent stuff now is dangerous. So it has really become a subject for families to decide, is this what we want our kids to get into, both boys and girls.

Werman: Bruce Dowbiggin is a sports commentator and author of Of Ice and Men, and The Stick. Bruce, thanks a lot.

Dowbiggin: Thank you.