Even if you don't know anything about the rules of hockey, you can't help react to the fights. Whether it be the anticipation as you watch two heavyweights toss their gloves and size each other up, the thrill of the knockout punch, or maybe you just don't get why a pro sport would stop the action so guys can pulverize each other, the hockey fight is one of the part of the game that gets us all riled up. Wherever you stand on players throwing punches, aside from maybe an overtime goal, hardly anything brings fans to their feet quite like a tussle in the middle of the game. And nobody does it better than the enforcer, the guy whose job it is to start trouble and get into fights, either as a way to send a message to the opponents, or get his own team fired up.
With Boy on Ice, the new book by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter John Branch, the effects of numerous fights on an individual player are explored through the life, career, and death of the 6'8" former Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, who — at the age of 28 — overdosed on drugs and alcohol while recovering from a concussion.
But Boy on Ice is also something else that might not be as expected: It's one of the best books on hockey you will ever read. With Boogaard, a hard working and good natured giant whose violent job leads to drug addiction to help ease the pain of repeated blows to the head and bare knuckle blows to the skulls of other players, we have the tragic central figure. Almost as important, Branch provides a snapshot of hockey culture in Canada, which, as most people know, is the heart of the Great White North. We see the small towns and small teams, and the love of the game that keeps people warm throughout the frozen winters. It's that, combined with the prospect of little else in terms of a future, that drives Boogaard to work harder to become more than just a massive man who can throw a punch. Branch tells his story, but also explains the game itself, and sheds a light on the unnecessary violence that might be its greatest flaw.
What drew you to the story in the first place?
The story for the Times was not my idea. The sports editor came to me a few days after Boogaard died and said, "Do you know anything about Derek Boogaard?" I said not a whole lot, and he said, "Well you know, I think we ought to look into him a little bit." At the time, we had written a bunch of stories about the NFL and the concussion crisis. We had heard that the Boogaards were going to donate Derek's brain to the same folks at Boston University, and we said that at least we need to follow that and see where that goes. Maybe this is a chance to explore the world of hockey, because now it looks like it's possible that these brain injuries may be effecting hockey players as well, and do it through the eyes of an enforcer. It's a world that's not very well understood, even by some hardcore hockey fans.
One of the things I loved about the book was your ability to paint the picture of small Canadian towns and the country's hockey culture. Was that your intention from the start, or was it the evolution of the book?
I covered hockey for a few years in the late 90s and early 2000s for the Colorado Springs Gazette, and I covered the Avalanche for some of the glory years. I've done hockey off and on as a sportswriter, but never played it. I did spend quite a decent amount of time up in Canada during the reporting of this to get a sense of place, and that was important to me to make it feel authentic.
Do you get the sense that in Canada they talk about CTE and brain damage from playing hockey the same way we're starting to, more and more, here in America?
I don't think to that extent. It's probably not unlike the way we look at kids playing soccer now. There have been cases of CTE in soccer players, and people have begun to build an awareness that, 'Well, my kid's 8-years-old, maybe they shouldn't be heading the ball too much.' I think it's a little bit more of that: 'Hey, let's be careful. Odds are it isn't going to happen to our kid.' You're still playing the odds until somebody says this is a crazy idea. So I think people are being more careful. I don't know how many parents are keeping their kids from playing hockey, I'm sure there are some. But I don't think it's a major cultural shift other than let's think about the rules that we've set up, and really think about the way we're exposing our kids in terms of the hits and in terms of the fights and the age that they're doing that.
You write about the enforcer "inferiority complex" as well as Boogaard's work ethic and his sheer size. What set him apart from other enforcers? What made him different? You put him in the same class as some of the more famous fighters like Bob Probert and the Tie Domi, but what made him stand out?
I think it was his size. He was about as big as any enforcer as we've seen. And what's funny is that he wasn't like some of these musclehead kind of guys, he was just a big guy. He wasn't ripped or cut, everything about him was kinda large. When you'd stand him on skates, he was almost seven feet tall. He was imposing. A lot of these guys are well over 6 feet, but there are still some guys that are kind of middleweights, and he'd find himself fighting these guys that were literally 7 or 8 inches shorter than him. That has to be scary for an enforcer, especially when he knocked out Todd Fedoruk. Then people said, 'Wait. It's not like he's a big guy that's hard to take down; he's got a punch that could end my career right now.' That combination made him really scary.
You say he was a beloved goon. Did it surprise you to find he wasn't some violent maniac off of the ice?
It did and it didn't. I found during my time covering the NHL that the enforcers were some of the most accessible guys and the most low-key guys. I think that's somewhat of a natural thing. I don't know if that's because it's the big guy that everybody fears, and then you're sort of surprised and taken by the fact that he's actually a nice guy. But I also think it has to do with, being an enforcer, you tend to be at the bottom-rung of the roster. I think it's natural for those guys to be kind and nice and willing to talk to the media, because they don't know how long this is all going to last. In Derek's case, he probably hit those extremes as much as anybody: He was scary on the ice, but off the ice, he was very shy and very socially awkward. I don't think it's uncommon, but I think with Derek it was to the extremes.
And he still suffered from the inferiority complex you mention in the book.
Yeah, I think they want to prove themselves, and I think that's part of the hockey culture that's been engrained inside of them. They work hard because they want to stay at a level or make it to the next one, but they also want to prove themselves. And since they don't get a lot of ice time, they do that by fighting.
As somebody who grew up playing the sport, one of the things I couldn't wrap my head around was how often they fought. For some reason I never thought that these guys really get into a fight almost every time they hit the ice.
It's interesting when you look at the raw numbers. In the case of these single-dimension enforcers, yeah, they fight a lot, especially per-minute they're on the ice. They're not playing a lot of minutes that they're not engaged in fighting or playing a little rough. What people kinda forget is that not only are these people fighting in the NHL, but they're practicing fighting, they're spending their time in boxing rings. Most of them have been doing this since they're 16 years old, so it adds up. Derek, officially, through juniors, minors, and the NHL, had something like 200 fights. Some of them are just one or two punches, but some of them are brutal. I think the misconception is that these are like WWE fights, that they don't really count, as if it's some part of the show. But these guys will tell you it's no part of the show.
Do you think fighting has a long-term future in hockey?
No. I think it will peter out. What's interesting is that it's not the NHL that is nudging it out, they've taken no leadership role. If you think fighting should be gone from the game, and I understand if you don't, you'd think the NHL, being the top league, would be the one in charge of nudging that out. But they're not always doing a lot about it. So what we're seeing instead is it working up from the bottom, from youth league and some of the minor leagues in Canada are changing the fighting rules. They want to get fighting out of their game. I think what we'll wind up seeing eventually is some sort of secondary league minor leagues that still have fighting, and eventually people will wonder what's the point of this. It will get nudged out from the bottom up. It's different than the NFL which — after all of this concussion stuff — has set up some ground rules, and I think people say we're going to follow the lead of the NFL. Although it was very sort of slow, the NFL started saying that yes, concussions are an issue. The NHL has not said anything about fighting or concussions for the most part. I'd be surprised if 25 years from now there's fighting in hockey.
Did you have an opinion on fighting in hockey before the book? Did it change after you did all this work and saw the damage it can cause?
I didn't really have an opinion. You're sitting there covering this game, and all of a sudden you have this show. I remember I always thought that the fans totally get into it, but I couldn't understand what it did for the game. I always thought it was sort of a sideshow, but I didn't have an opinion on it. My thought was that this was part of the game, and who am to just walk in and say this isn't the way it should be? And I think hockey kinda relies on that from a lot of people, because there's a quick blowback when people try to criticize the game. It wasn't until I got involved in this where I said that this is kind of silly and in light of concussions, I'm not sure how you defend any sort of seriousness you might take against concussions, and then say that we're going to allow these guys to take off their gloves, and beat each other in the head and face. I think it's pretty hypocritical to say we're against concussions and then let this happen.