Editor's Note: The 28-year-old New York Rangers forward was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment on May 13, 2011 – the result of an accidental, lethal mix of alcohol and painkillers. Paul Solotaroff profiled Boogaard in our December 2010/January 2011 issue.
It was the most devastating punch in the annals of modern hockey, one that landed with such car-crash torque that it still scares off opponents four years later. But what Derek Boogaard recalls is that he tried not to throw it, did everything he reasonably could to avoid breaking the face of Todd Fedoruk. This is how you become the scariest man in sports: Even the fights you decline turn epically gruesome.
Boogaard's Minnesota Wild were playing a 2006 home game against the Anaheim Ducks, a team that surrounded its stars with bruisers and slugged its way to the Stanley Cup that season. But the Wild, an undersized expansion team, had a one-man response crew in Boogaard. His job was to lay down frontier justice with a clean but ballistic check, and he did, smoking a winger named Chris Kunitz with a vicious check that sent him out of the game. Incensed, the Ducks sent out Fedoruk, their own cop, to "hold Boogs accountable," as Fedoruk later put it. In hockey, the enforcer operates as a human brushback pitch.
Fedoruk, a 6-foot-2 stand of Canadian oak known to his grateful teammates as "The Fridge," challenged Boogaard as they skated up the ice, tugging the back of his jersey and barking curses. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Derek "Boogeyman" Boogaard was the Sandman on skates, a creature constructed in a lunatic's tower. The second-year winger had the turning radius of a double-decker bus, hadn't scored a goal in months (to date, in five-plus seasons in the league, he has a grand total of three), and was viewed, rightly or wrongly, as such a hindrance on defense that he played five or six minutes a night, tops. But every shift out there he planted the flag, dissuading opponents from mauling the Wild and opening the ice for its stars to work.
On this day, he ignored Fedoruk's taunts, giving him one last chance to skate away. The best enforcers do this: pick and choose their spots, fight only when it makes tactical sense. But the Fridge was committed and dropped his gloves, punching as he grabbed for Boogaard's sweater. This is known as "grip," and it's do-or-die for fighters – if you fail to grasp the shoulder of your opponent's jersey, you can't block the blows from his dominant hand with the elbow and triceps of your free arm. Fedoruk got grip, but it was like trying to stall a forklift. Boogaard threw and landed, wound again and landed. Dazed, Fedoruk lost grip, leaving himself off-balance and exposed. Boogaard reloaded, took his time to draw a bead, and with a short, sharp thrust connected with the shot that made him notorious, then rich. Down went Fedoruk, cradling his face, the right side pulped like powdered eggs. His orbital bones were broken, his cheekbone was smashed, his nose and jaw likewise, and as he skated past his teammates on his way to the trainer's room, he could hear them gasping, "Oh, my God," as they saw his face.
"My cheekbone crumpled like chalk," says Fedoruk. Now living in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, with his wife and three kids, he has healed but is out of hockey at 31, having lost the will and strength to fight. "If it hadn't given way, I might've lost the eye or had something even worse go down. I never blamed Boogey, though he goofs about it still. Sends me texts saying, 'Sorry about that, Fridge.'"
Yes, that's right, Fedoruk and Boogaard are friends, and have been since the Fridge joined the Wild the next year. "He's such a great guy, and was so good about it after that I've been apologizing since," says Boogaard. "They gave him the stall left of me and he joked, 'Do you mind if we switch? I wanna be able to see your right hand coming.'"
How could it be that men of violence can forgive, if not forget, so quickly? Because in an age in which narcissism leads the sports-news crawl every night, hockey players are perhaps the most honorable of athletes off the ice. The deeper reason, though, is that enforcers share a craft as dangerous as defusing a bomb. "I've had my jaw broken, my nose knocked sideways, took a shot behind my ear, and had a concussion," says Boogaard while sprawled on a combat mat in an unventilated gym in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was training ferociously in mixed martial arts this off-season for a big step up the hockey ladder. This summer, the 28-year-old free agent signed a four-year, $6.5 million deal with the New York Rangers, a team with a long and unenviable history of being knocked around the ice. In a sport that pays its enforcers badly and often sits them out against smaller teams, that's a huge chunk of money for a player who went nearly five years without a goal. (He finally ended his 234-game goalless streak on November 9 – 22 games short of the NHL record.) It's also an explicit statement of faith in the value of intimidation. "We've been trying, as a team, to find some toughness; that's still a prime element in hockey," says John Tortorella, the head coach of the Rangers, who missed the playoffs by a point last season after being bullied by the Philadelphia Flyers. "Derek stands up for teammates, and that's a huge thing in this conference. A couple of good fights and this town will love him."