It had echoes of an age-old story —with fame and money comes drug and alcohol abuse —but there were other puzzle pieces to investigate when Minnesota Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard was found dead of a drug and alcohol overdose in his Minneapolis apartment in May. It was a macabre request to his mourning family when researchers asked that they donate his brain, but they didn’t hesitate, and scientists at Bedford V.A. Medical Center were able to unlock clues as to why the 28-year-old had really died.
Researchers confirmed their suspicions on December 6. Boogaard, who also played for the New York Rangers during his career, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, as a result of multiple blows to the head. CTE is similar to Alzheimer’s and results in memory loss, erratic, impulsive behavior and addictive behavior. It’s a disease that has been found in many former athletes including NFL players and boxers, and is credited with driving former wrestler Christ Benoit to murder his wife and son and commit suicide in 2007. CTE happens when a blow to the head is severe enough that it jostles the brain and causes damage to connecting fibers. The fibers need time to heal, but athletes often can’t give them the necessary time, and are already out getting hit in the head again before their brain has recovered. The multiple hits while the brain struggles to recover causes tau protein deposits, which leads to CTE. Unfortunately, CTE can’t be diagnosed until after death when the brain can be studied, and there is no cure. For Boogaard and two other NHL enforcers who died in the two months after him, the diagnosis came too late.