Hockey fans — especially Minnesota Wild fans — should read New York Times’ reporter John Branch’s moving and disturbing three-part series on the professional rise and fall of Derek Boogaard, the former Wild “enforcer” who died of a prescription drug overdose in his Minneapolis apartment last spring at the age of 28.
I just don’t see how any hockey fan could continue to cheer the sport’s on-ice fights after reading Branch’s damning account of the devastating physical toll those sanctioned bare-fisted brawls take on the players.
And, please, don’t tell me that the enforcers are needed because they keep the other players from intentionally hurting each other. If the current rules don’t protect players from each other, then the sport should strengthen those rules with very heavy penalties — and have referees and other officials enforce them. (What a novel idea.)
Particularly upsetting is the fact that hockey players like Boogaard — ones who do not have the speed or the skills to be drafted onto a professional team for their goal-scoring abilities — are groomed from an early age to fight on the ice.
How can any parent, coach or sports official permit — indeed, encourage — a child (Boogaard began his life as a brawler in his mid teens) to become a hockey enforcer? And how can fans cheer them on?
For, as Branch makes painfully clear, those fights are not only crippling the players’ bodies (causing many of them, like Boogaard, to turn to addictive painkillers), they are also destroying their brain cells.
After Boogard’s death, his brain was sent to Massachusetts, where neuropathologists examined it for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a progressive degenerative brain disease caused by single or repeated blunt force impacts to the head. Writes Branch:
It did not take long for Dr. Ann McKee to see the telltale brown spots near the outer surface of Boogaard’s brain — the road signs of C.T.E. She did not know much about Boogaard other than that he was a 28-year-old hockey player. And the damage was obvious.
“That surprised me,” she said.
A neuropathologist, McKee is one of four co-directors of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and the director of the center’s brain bank. She has examined nearly 80 brains of former athletes, mainly retired football players and boxers who spent their careers absorbing blows to the head. The center’s peer-reviewed findings of C.T.E. have been widely accepted by experts in the field. The National Football League, initially dismissive, has since donated money to help underwrite the research.
The group may now have its most sobering case: a young, high-profile athlete, dead in midcareer, with a surprisingly advanced degree of brain damage.
“To see this amount? That’s a ‘wow’ moment,” McKee said as she pointed to magnified images of Boogaard’s brain tissue. “This is all going bad.”
The degenerative disease was more advanced in Boogaard than it was in Bob Probert, a dominant enforcer of his generation, who played 16 N.H.L. seasons, struggled with alcohol and drug addictions and died of heart failure at age 45 in 2010.
In the past two years, C.T.E. was also diagnosed in the brains of two other former N.H.L. players: Reggie Fleming, 73, and Rick Martin, 59.
The condition of Boogaard’s brain, however, suggests the possibility that other current N.H.L. players have the disease, even if the symptoms have not surfaced.
A sport in denial
The N.H.L., however, continues to deny a link between C.T.E. and hockey. If they did so, they would have to, of course, put an end to the enforcer brawls, and that would undoubtedly antagonize fans — and hurt the sport’s bottom line.
The N.H.L. formed a concussion-prevention program in 1997. In 2010, it banned blindside hits to the head. In March, the league altered its treatment protocol, requiring teams to examine all suspected concussions in a “quiet” room, away from the bench.
But the league has shown little interest in ending on-ice fighting. The message is decidedly mixed: outlaw an elbow to the head during play, but allow two combatants to stop the game and try to knock each other out with bare-knuckle punches to the head.
“If you polled our fans, probably more would say they think it’s a part of the game and should be retained,” [N.H.L. Commissioner Gary] Bettman said. He noted that fights were down slightly this season.
“The issue is, do we increase the penalty?” Bettman added, referring to the five-minute punishment typically handed to both fighters. “Because it is penalized now. And there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming appetite or desire to go in that direction at this point in time.”
Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler who is another co-director of the Boston University center, is the one who usually makes the initial call to a grieving family to request the brain. He does not want to put an end to hockey. He wants leagues to take every possible precaution to ensure that athletes are both better protected and better informed.
In October, Nowinski attended a Bruins game in Boston. There was a fight, and he watched quietly as thousands of people stood and cheered while the players fought.
“They are trading money for brain cells,” he said.
Let’s hope it has you sitting, not cheering, next time a fight breaks out at a hockey game.