Derek Boogaard Wants to Break Your Face
Credit: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images
One bright Sunday this summer, before Boogaard moved to New York, I dropped by his place in Minneapolis. Though he rented the loft, a baronial wraparound, from an ex-teammate, Boogaard seemed embarrassed by its opulence, as if he had no call to live there. So, too, with the Maserati parked downstairs and the attention he drew when we got outside. A shy, affable man in rumpled jeans and a shapeless, ring-necked tee, Boogaard was tongue-tied with strangers who waved and said hi or wished him luck with the Rangers. For years, his jersey was the Wild's top seller. Venturing to nightclubs at times, he'd get cruised by drunks with one idiotic wish: to be punched by the Boogeyman. "It's sick, but guys ask for that all the time," he says. "They go, 'Please! I just want to tell my friends I survived a shot from Boogey!'"

Ever tempted to oblige? He hangs a brittle smile. "No, but I smacked a guy once when he begged me and wouldn't let up."

And?

"Well, he went down pretty hard and got up groggy, but said, 'That was fucking awesome! Could you do it again?'"

Boogaard is reluctant to tell such stories, but not from fears for his rep. People can think what they want of him and how he earns his living; he doesn't much care. What pains him is talking about himself. Pushed to describe his hockey childhood in Saskatchewan and Ontario, he gives largely colorless answers, as if asked to file a book report. What emerges is the story of an oversize kid who grew up awkward and lonely. His father, Len, was a Canadian Mountie posted to towns of less than a thousand, where he was the cop busting drunks on Friday-night sprees and handing out seat-belt summonses. "We were always outsiders because we moved a lot and because our dad wrote their dads tickets; no one even waved to us on the street," says Boogaard. "I mostly hung at home, tearing after my younger brothers or wrestling my sister, Krysten. I feel bad that we never treated her like a girl."

Krysten Boogaard seems to have come through fine; at 6-foot-5, she's the starting center for the University of Kansas basketball team. (Ryan, 26, stands 6-1 and is a Mountie in a northwest province; Aaron, 24 and 6-3, is a forward who plays for the Laredo Bucks in the low minor leagues.) "Derek, being my oldest, had it hardest," says Len over the phone from eastern Ontario. "He caught all kinds of hell from the parents in town because he was huge and accidentally bumped kids on the ice. At school, the boys would taunt him to start a fight, then run and get the principal on him. It got so bad that his fourth-grade teacher repeatedly stuck him in a closet as punishment. He never really said much as a kid, but I knew he felt different from everyone else."

So it went in hockey, too. Boogaard, a fine athlete (he excelled at swimming but refused to don a Speedo and eventually quit), was a competent skater for his size and weight, but his genes kept tripping him up. In early adolescence, he grew a whole foot in a single year and was so hobbled by the spurt that he had to use crutches until his tendons caught up. A giant at 15, he was no threat with the puck, but when he bodied a kid in open ice, that kid went down hard. Scouts took note, and Boogaard was signed at 16 to play junior hockey in one of the sport's minor leagues. At training camp that summer with the Regina Pats, he was taping his stick before a scrimmage when an older tough-guy hopeful approached him. "He says, 'I'm gonna fuckin' kill you, rip your face off today' – and I'd never laid eyes on the guy." But Boogaard, who'd boxed since he turned 13, driven hours by Len on weekend mornings to take lessons in Saskatoon, was ready when the gloves dropped. "As he came in to clutch, I threw the first shot, smashed his face open with a right." The other guy caved, soaked in his own blood; Boogaard's teammates banged their sticks in praise. Afterward a coach came over to him, grinning. "He said, 'You, you're the Boogeyman now.'" That was the good news, but also the bad. No matter how heavy his slap shot became or his skills with the puck improved, he'd been stamped forever as one thing only: a meatball who beat other meatballs bloody.

He spent seven mostly miserable, flat-broke years in the minors, riding all-night buses to Moose Jaw and Red Deer, but caught the eye of a patron in Doug Risebrough, the Wild's founding GM. "I saw this huge kid who could play a little but needed to get lighter and improve his hockey skills," says Risebrough. Even after getting drafted by the Wild in 2001, Boogaard was stuck in the bush leagues. "I told him to go down there," Risebrough says, "work as hard as humanly possible, and I'd see that he got a fair shot."

Finally, in '05, Boogaard made the Wild and wasted no time punching in. In his debut bout, he toyed with Anaheim Ducks goon Kip Brennan before crushing him with a right to the jaw. Several games later, he cracked the helmet off the Vancouver Canucks's Wade Brookbank, then dropped him with a devastating punch. On and on it went, a parade of brutal KOs in which Boogaard stood there calmly, fist cocked at his ear, loading up to deliver his monster right. He had no use for the push-and-pull tactics with which savvy fighters steal a win, or the flurry of wild punches that inflame the crowd but rarely do much damage. All he wanted was to grab you by the throat, lock you up with his long left arm, and knock you into Tuesday with one shot. "It's a real bad feeling when he works that hand free," says Chris Simon, a notable tough guy for the Calgary Flames who now plays in Russia. "It's not just his power but the accuracy. He's one of the most on-the-money punchers you'll ever face."

Word spread fast about Boogaard's prowess, and soon he had a hard time finding takers. "No one wants to make his highlight reel," says Riley Cote, a brawler for the Philadelphia Flyers until he retired in August. "He's so intimidating, he makes his own guys tougher. They can hit as hard as they want and not have to worry about payback." Marion Gaborik, the top scorer in the Wild's brief history before signing with the Rangers last season, says Boogaard was invaluable to him and Minnesota's other snipers: "He got us extra room, especially from defensemen. He hit them so hard that they'd step aside." The Slovakian winger, who was mauled last season by a Philadelphia brawler named Dan Carcillo, lobbied Rangers management to sign his old protector when Boogaard hit the market this summer. "When he fights, it just gives you so much extra jump. You feel better about yourself – more, I guess, safer."