Monday, 29 December 2014

May God forever bless “The Boogeyman”

            It is a book I don’t wanted to glance into, but I do anyways.
            A Christmas gift, I am nowhere near finishing it. I jump to a page or two here and a page or two there depending upon where curiousity takes me at that point in time.
            The book is written by John Branch and it is about the life of late NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard entitled, “Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard.” Anyone that follows hockey knows that the book penned by the New York Times writer will enter tough areas.
Boogaard died on May 13, 2011 at age 28 from an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers. The painkillers were used to treat his concussion injuries.
            Boogaard played in the WHL during the years I covered the league. He was with the Medicine Hat Tigers, when I was in Prince Albert, and I arrived in the Gas City shortly after his time with the Tigers came to an end.
            I was on shift at the Medicine Hat News the night Boogaard passed. Locally, the word arrived in the newsroom at the 9 p.m. hour.
            My first reaction was shock.
            I asked my co-worker, Scott Schmidt, if Boogaard had really died. He did some checking on various Internet lines and quickly confirmed that Boogaard, who played mostly in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild and finished with the New York Rangers, had passed.
            My next reaction was I could name 10 people in town off the top of my head that would immediately be sad about the news. As deadline was approaching and I was handling layout in sports, I quickly pieced together an obituary with quotes from old stories I had written on “The Boogeyman.”
            When my shift ended, I became sad. I was sad, because I knew how well Boogaard was loved in Medicine Hat.
Knowing this love, I have mixed emotions, when it comes to checking out Branch’s book. I am hesitant to discover the struggles Boogaard had in the later years of his life.
When I am ready and the curiosity is up, I do check the book out.
In Medicine Hat, Boogaard was seen as the life of the party comedian and everyone’s best friend. He kept in touch big time with his old billet mom, Doris Sullivan, and Tigers assistant trainer, Ken Stickel, and sent them a variety of his NHL gear.
            He was far from the 6-foot-7, 258-pound, monster type guy spectators saw engaging in brawls on the ice. Looking back to how some of his on-ice fighting incidents were covered in the WHL, I believe at the time we in the media painted a way more aggressive picture of the man, which did him a disservice. Hindsight is always 20-20.
            I only got to deal with Boogaard on a couple of occasions. I wish there would have been more.
            The highlight was writing a catch-up feature on him shortly before Christmas of 2006. I phoned his mother, Joanne, for a cell number.
There was kind of amusement and a bit of an unsure moment, because a reporter from Medicine Hat wanted to talk to Derek. I could tell mom was a bit concerned about what Derek was going to say in the interview.
She passed on the cell number and said, “Please be good.”
I left a message on Derek’s phone, and he called back within five minutes. He quickly rolled off a pile of one-liners, and I laughed so hard that it took a bit to get into the interview.
Boogaard then asked how Tigers head coach and general manager Willie Desjardins was doing and quickly went into a story about his only training camp under Desjardins back in 2002. At that time, the Tigers didn’t have a rookie camp, and the rookies skated in scrimmages with the veterans.
Boogaard said he bodychecked a 15-year-old into the boards hard, and the poor kid had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Desjardins gave Boogaard the rest of training camp off, and enforcer said that was the easiest training camp he ever had.
I bought that quote up to Desjardins during a Tigers training camp a couple of years later, and he laughed. The bench boss said he flat out had fears players would get hurt running into Boogaard, because he was so big. That came on top of concerns about what would happened when Boogaard would initiate a hit.
Giving him the rest of camp off seemed like the logical thing to do.
            While Boogaard joked about that training camp memory, he initially took having the rest of that camp off the wrong way.
            After he passed, Sullivan recalled that time in training camp during a media interview. She said Boogaard came home all sad the night of that hit being dejected he couldn’t play. He said it was like he was back in kindergarten and the teachers wouldn’t let him play with the little kids because he was too big.
            That recollection brought to the forefront of how much Boogaard was in a lot of ways a little boy in a man’s body.
Branch did a good job in capturing that in his book, especially when it came to writing about Boogaard meeting Janella D’Amore, who was a figure skater from Portland, Oregon. The two met, while Boogaard was playing for the Tigers, and had a lengthy relationship, which eventually became a common-law marriage.
When the Tigers came through Portland during the 2001-02 campaign, another girl, who was one of D’Amore’s friends, expressed romantic interest in Boogaard. D’Amore tried to play matchmaker through instant messages on the computer, but Boogaard dismissed them.
Boogaard later got back in touch with D’Amore saying he wanted to get to know her better. Through exchanges, Boogaard said he didn’t like D’Amore’s friend that originally showed interest in him, because that friend was a “puck bunny.”
Boogaard and D’Amore met in person at the Wild’s summer in 2002, and he would often tell her she was too pretty for him. Branch did an excellent job of writing how cute and sweet the romance was especially at the start.
Much later in the book, childlike demeanour came out in another way. It came near the end of Boogaard’s only season with NHL’s New York Rangers and in what were the final months of his life.
He has been out for a lengthy time with a concussion, and the Rangers coaches were trying to get him back on the ice. In one skating session, he kept falling down and struggled with coordination. After being sent off the ice, he went through a range of emotions in front of team trainers, screamed people through he was a pill head and cried.
Without even reading further, you knew the sad ending was around the corner.
Over the years, Boogaard was a character that always intrigued me. Desjardins really liked him, like really liked him.
Had Boogaard not been an overage player in the one season both were in Medicine Hat, it is pretty safe to Desjardins would have ensured the enforcer was on the Tigers roster for the whole campaign. Major junior teams can only have three overage players, and those spots are usually held for scorers or strong veteran defencemen. Boogaard was released after playing 27 regular season games that campaign.
Desjardins, who is the current head coach of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, saw a potential for Boogaard to be more that a fighter in hockey talking about how well the big man could skate, had an ability to play defence and possessed a booming shot that could be developed.
While watching him play on TV, it was obviously Boogaard could skate extremely well, which was unreal to see from a guy his size. I remember him being able to get down to block shot and then bounce up quickly to help a play transition down ice.
Fighting alone didn’t get Boogaard into the NHL. It was his ability to do other things to go in hand with fighting that did.
Unfortunately, fighting is what helped bring a tragic end to his story.
Boogaard’s death is one thing that cemented me in believing that fighting has to be taken out of hockey, and more serious attention has to be given to concussion injuries.
Whenever someone in Medicine Hat was adamant that fighting needed to remain in hockey and that concussion injuries are not a big deal, I always brought up Boogaard.
I would ask would you rather have Boogaard live the life he did, or would you rather have him here now? The answer would always be it would have been better to have Boogaard here now.
Currently, Boogaard’s family still has a wrongful-death suit filed against the NHL. The late enforcer was always a huge fan favourite, but with the suit before the courts, you can be sure a number of people involved with the league will try to minimize memories of Boogaard’s time in “The Show.”
It will be up to Boogaard’s friends and those that knew him to ensure his memory stays alive regarding how much of a good and quality guy he was.
Rest in peace Boogey. You will forever be missed.

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