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.”
Forensically, it makes no sense. If you and an opponent stand toe-to-toe on ice and brawl till your arms get tired, the referee will sit you both out for five minutes at no expense to your teams. But do it 50 paces in any direction, and uniformed cops will descend in ill humor and charge you with assault. Culturally, it’s just as curious: Canada, a land of good manners and social justice, turns out to pack a mean streak behind its smile and exports to us a sport so gladiatorial that its promoters used to circle the arena in an ambulance, blaring, “Who’s going to the morgue tonight?” to boost walk-up sales. And morally, it’s so twisty that Möbius couldn’t unwind it: Enforcers espouse the need for brawls to, ahem, discourage violent play.
But and still: Put 12 skaters in a rink too narrow for men of their size and speed, watch as they chase a disk of vulcanized rubber whose name derives from the phrase to strike, and somehow or other it gloriously slides together. “There’s been fighting in hockey since Native Americans and Canadian Indians traded blows over a frozen cow pat,” says Ross Bernstein, a hockey historian who’s written books on the subject, most notably his definitive ‘The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL.’ “Once someone saw you could intimidate scorers by checking them hard, there was a need for tough guys to take up for them – and a fan base that gobbled it up.”
Bernstein, an engaging guy in his 40s who can describe to you, in pointillistic detail, an epic punch-up from the 1950s, lays out the case for enforcers: “If there weren’t fights in hockey, the dirty players would get away with murder. There are so many ways to injure a guy and not get caught by the refs, so somebody has to police the stuff that happens away from the puck.” For the first 50 years, that police work was done with more than bloody knuckles. “Till the league cleaned things up in the late ’50s and early ’60s to get a TV deal, guys would go at it using sticks as weapons, slashing and spearing at will. The NHL was lucky that no one died, though Ted Green was brained and nearly killed one night by a vicious whack from Wayne Maki.”
Fortunately, for a sport so gorgeously skilled that it must be seen in person to grasp its beauty (hockey on TV is like NASCAR on an iPod Nano), a code evolved to stem the carnage and refine the terms of engagement. Where enforcers once gladly fought all comers, resulting in hideous beatings, now they largely battle each other to retaliate for crimes done to teammates. Weapons like sticks are strictly forbidden, and no fight can start without mutual consent or, in some cases, prior appointment. “People don’t know this, but tough guys dicker, say, ‘Let’s wait until the game gets out of hand,'” says Barry Melrose, who coached Wayne Gretzky to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993 and is now a hockey analyst for ESPN. But with a slew of recent rule shifts – a tack-on penalty for inciting a bout or being third man into a scrap; an automatic suspension for starting a fight in the last five minutes of a game – “it’s so watered down now that you have to pry the gloves off guys to fight,” says Melrose. Complains David Singer, the founder of Hockeyfights.com, a popular site for brawl enthusiasts: “There are so many unspoken don’ts these days – don’t go at it when one guy’s tired or recently got stitches; don’t pull his sweater over his head and punch him when he can’t see. It’s almost like, ‘What’s the point?'”
Indeed, since 1967, when the league doubled in size and created a slew of jobs for gap-toothed goons, the stewards of the game have steadily marginalized fighting. The frequency of bouts is roughly half what it was when Philly’s Broad Street Bullies cold-cocked their way to two straight Cups 30-odd years ago. And after the lockout season of 2004-05, when every effort was made to maximize scoring and speed, those big, slow brawlers lost their roster slots to middleweights who could skate a regular shift. The game’s great heavies – Donald Brashear, Georges Laraque – couldn’t find work when their contracts lapsed, and the mastodons who did remain worked furiously to improve their skating. That leaves Boogaard as the undisputed champ of the throwback fighters – an enforcer so imposing that he had his pick of offers when the Wild let him hit the open market in July.
“I hate that they’re disappearing,” Melrose laments. “We should celebrate tough guys, start a wing in the Hall of Fame for the Joey Kocurs, Tony Twists, and Bob Proberts. If Probie were still alive, I’d pay any amount of money to watch him stand in there with Boogaard.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”