Derek Boogaard Wants to Break Your Face
Credit: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images
As vital as they are to their teams, enforcers have the worst working conditions of anyone in hockey. They're asked to fight all comers no matter how hurt they are, bounce from team to team as disposable parts, and are curtly cut loose to deal on their own with the fallout from concussions. The rare exceptions are the ones who grow their game to become useful fourth-liners and defenders. To that end, Boogaard spent the summer in Minnesota doing twice-a-day sessions with a pair of trainers. Mixed in with the usual onslaught of kettle-bell cleans and end-to-end skating drills was a fierce amalgam of combat wrestling and full-contact sparring. Boogaard loves to box and shares his passion freely. Four off-seasons ago, he started a fight camp for boys, teaching hockey players ages 12 to 18 to defend themselves on ice. But the press got wind, bemoaned its barbarism, and Boogaard folded the school.

As I watched him scrap with Jeremy Clark, an MMA fighter whose gym in St. Paul was Boogaard's second home, two things happened in rapid succession. The first was that Boogaard changed in a blink, shucking his dozy demeanor to become a hunter, stalking Clark with chopping shots. The second was that I suddenly understood why strangers ask to be punched by Boogaard: However demented it sounds, taking a shot from him is the furthest ledge of courage, a chance to test oneself against absolute power. The next thing I knew, I'd climbed into the ring, demanding to see how he iced huge men with a single blow.

He started by demonstrating grip, teaching how to twist the hand so that the elbow behind it rose to knock down punches. "Most guys get you by the armpit or shoulder, but I prefer to grab you by the neck. That way, I can jab you in the jaw with my grip hand while I drag you toward me to throw the right. That combination – my punch and you coming at it – doubles the power when it lands."

At 6-foot-1 and 190, I'm not a small man, but even with thumbless gloves on, Boogaard yanked me like a sack of crisply folded linens. "But isn't my left arm supposed to block your punch?" I asked.

"Yeah, if I come overhand. But a couple of these here should loosen you up" – he demoed an uppercut to my lower left side; even at 10 percent force, it blistered my ribs, which would moan for the rest of the month – "and then your arm comes down and I've got you."

I received this news while dangling on tiptoe; Boogaard still had me at the end of his meat-hook left. "What if I grab you and move in tight, wrestle you down before you drill me?" I asked.

"Guys try that," he said, "but I've got the bigger reach. All I have to do is shake you side to side" – he jerked me by the collar like I was on ball bearings – "and eventually you'll let go, and I've got you."

He kindly stopped swinging me like a dead cat, though by dint of habit had me fixed at arm's length, incapable of fight or flight. I looked up and saw a horrible sight: his right fist cocked and twitching. The goons I'd talked to said he hid it well, keeping it behind his ear till the last possible beat, but there it suddenly was, big as death. My mind reeling backward, screening It's a Wonderful Life, I blurted the one thing that might deprogram his autonomic urge to strike: "When Carcillo comes to town, will you pound his ass good for what he did to Gaborik last year?"

He gave his awkward smile and loosened his grip, primping my now thoroughly useless collar. "That's the first good question you've asked all day. You hungry? There's a ribs place up the road."