The saddest sentences in John Branch’s biography of the late Derek Boogaard come one after another, on page 138, following an account of an NHL fight of workaday brutality:
The announcers shared a hearty laugh. The crowd cheered.
Although: there’s also a very sad sentence on page 87:
Derek wanted to be famous for the glory of goals, not the fury of his fists.
It wasn’t to be. Fists, of course, prevailed in Boogaard’s story, as they do in Branch’s devastating Boy on Ice, an unflinching chronicle of hockey damage that’s as shocking as it is familiar. Which may be the saddest part of all: how well we know the ugly side of the game.
A San Francisco-based reporter for The New York Times, Branch first wrote about Boogaard’s life in 2011, not long after the beloved New York Rangers fighter died at the age of 28 of an overdose of painkillers and alcohol. Meticulously reported, Boy on Ice goes deeper into the personal story that Branch started so powerfully to tell in “Punched Out” about the Saskatchewan-born left winger who lived the Canadian dream of making it to the NHL, where he died trying subdue the loneliness and pain he found once he got there.
There’s a lot to think about here, from the serious questions Branch raises about painkillers and prescriptions in the NHL and oversight of the league’s substance abuse program. There are the frightening facts that the posthumous examination of Boogaard’s damaged brain revealed to neurologists and how their ongoing studies into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) might affect the way the game is played.
And there are, of course, many furious fists, enough to fill a terrible thesaurus. Boogaard belts Andrew Peters and bombs Shawn Thornton (with three right hands). He himself is bashed and bitten. He drops Brendan Yarema (then pulls him back to his feet to punch him more). Assails Wade Brookbank (with a flurry of punches to the head. Clocks Trevor Gillies (in the face), whom he also, another time, deconstructs. Fells Brian McGrattan, mauls Jody Shelley, pops Colton Orr (in the face).
(With his right fist.)
If the book doesn’t explicitly indict the hypocrisy of a league that talks about player safety while continuing to pretend that fighting is a natural and necessary part of a game so fast and kinetic and contained, it doesn’t have to. For hockey, Boy on Ice is a devastating document that lays bare the violence that the game has institutionalized and continues to promote and celebrate while chronically pretending that it really isn’t much of a serious problem at all.
Can a biography change a sport? I don’t know. It’s not for me to say, anyway. Let NHL commissioner Gary Bettman read Boy on Ice and give us his review. We’ll wait.
John Branch was on the road this week when Puckstruck tracked him down to ask about the book and what it has to say about the game that Derek Boogaard loved so fatally well. From Branch’s keyboard, five answers for five questions:
What did Boy on Ice allow you to do that you felt you hadn’t done in the Times with “Punched Out”?
A lot of things. I’d like to think that the Times series portrayed Derek as fully as possible in a newspaper story, but — as many writers will tell you — the difficult part in storytelling is deciding what to leave out. I had a lot of material and a lot more questions, and I wanted to colour in the corners of Derek’s life. I felt he deserved that, and that the extra content and context would help explain him better to readers. The Times story made a lot of passing mentions to critical aspects of his life that I wanted to explain further — everything from his father’s work as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police member to his life with billet families, from his time in juniors to the final days of his life.
The newspaper story, for example, barely mentions his two long-term girlfriends and skips over most of his three-year career in minor-league hockey. It is focussed largely on his concussions, less on his prescription painkiller addiction. It mentions the tradition of fighting in hockey, but does not explain it in detail. There are love letters that Derek wrote as an adult and notes from the substance-abuse counsellors who treated him. While I could not be more proud of the newspaper story, I feel the book has the depth and nuance that wasn’t realistically possible there.
The facts of the Boogaard case are, on their own, an indictment of the NHL and hockey’s culture of violence. In your 2011 interview with commissioner Gary Bettman, he mostly deflects and downplays questions of the league’s responsibility for the safety of its players as well as those of the broader issues to do with the league’s permitting and promoting of fighting. Has that shifted at all, in your view? Have you had any reaction to the book from the NHL or NHLPA?
I have had no reaction, but I didn’t expect any. Both the NHL and NHLPA knew I was writing the book, just as they knew I was writing the newspaper story previously. What would they say? The league is now involved in lawsuits, which will only grow in size and scope in the coming years. And, frankly, I did not set out to write this book to explain the state of the NHL in 2014, but to tell readers a narrower tale of a boy who worked his way through the hockey apparatus to get everything he ever dreamed, only to die a lonely death at age 28. I wanted the book to be personal both personal and timeless, to explain an era in our sports culture that may change by the time someone picks up the book, now or many years from now.
Your portrayal of Derek Boogaard’s transformation into a fighter in the WHL casts a harsh light on the realities of Canadian junior hockey. Writing the book, did you feel like you gained a particular insight into the culture of the country where hockey means so much?
Of course, I wonder if the story would have been different had it been reported and written by someone either closely tied to junior hockey in Canada or, conversely, by someone with little understanding of hockey at all. I’d like to think that my background made me well-suited for the examination; I covered the NHL for a few years, but not much recently, and I’m an American. It’s my job as a newspaper reporter to learn, almost every day, about things and people I may not know well, and be able to explain them to a broader audience with both fairness and accuracy. Junior hockey is fascinating — rich in tradition, but filled with so many potential pitfalls. It’s not unlike the NCAA in the United States — teenagers enticed to move far from home for the promise of, at worst, an education, and, at best, a professional career. But the hockey players are a few years younger, so the risks might be greater.
It’s interesting that I’m answering this question at a time when we’re learning of a $180 million class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of junior players in the Canadian Hockey League, arguing that their compensation falls below minimum-wage laws.
With all that we’re learning about head trauma and CTE, do you think that hockey is headed into the territory in which NFL finds itself now, where the morality of watching and cheering for a sport that does such damage to its players is increasingly in question?
I do. At minimum, I think hockey will follow the arc of football, where increasing numbers of former players question the treatment they received, and parents of young players question the value of playing the game at all. The NFL, by its own testimony, estimates that close to one-third of its former players will suffer from effects of brain damage. The damage may not be so severe in hockey; we don’t know, frankly. But we now live in a time where we know enough to be worried, and, perhaps, not enough to know what to do. But if you knew that you had a one-in-three chance of having life-altering brain damage, would you still play? What ratio would be acceptable for professional athletes paid millions? For minor leaguers trying to crack the majors? For children?
Has the way you look at sports changed over the past four years?
I don’t think so. None of this comes as a great surprise, unfortunately. I learned a long time ago that the profit-making entities in sports will not always make decisions in the best interest of the safety of their athletes until such decisions are foisted upon them — perhaps in the guise of lawsuits, or a decline in popularity, or in an increasing number of brain examinations.
Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard
(W.W. Norton, 372 pp., $32.99)
This interview has been edited.