Painkillers

06.07.12

Derek Boogaard: The Player Hockey Hooked by Feeding Him Painkillers

Former Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard died of a drug overdose after years of taking painkillers to cope with injuries he received while playing. Buzz Bissinger on the shame of the sport that fed his addiction.

Any possibility that the sports machine cares about its players was extinguished Monday by John Branch’s story in The New York Times on the use of painkillers by Derek Boogaard when he played in the National Hockey League.

To describe Boogaard, who died last year at the age of 28 after an accidental overdose of narcotic painkillers and alcohol, as “using” Vicodin and Percocet and OxyContin while he played for the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers, is simply untrue.

He became addicted to them, and as Branch’s story depicts in meticulous detail and documentation, that addiction was aided and abetted by so many team doctors and team dentists that trying to keep track of who-gave-what-when is almost impossible. In total, more than a dozen team doctors wrote more than a hundred prescriptions for Boogaard for thousands of pills.

What happened was beyond derelict.

It was also preventable.

Boogaard’s sole reason to be, as a hockey player, was in the role of “enforcer,” a “goon,” as if he was part of the mob or the muscle in a loan shark operation. But at 6-foot-8 and nearly 270 pounds, he wasn’t on the ice to play hockey. During his six-year NHL career that began in 2005, he scored three goals. He once went 49 games without a point, 234 games in between goals. In the sad and unjustifiable perversion of a game that is otherwise an exquisite combination of physical skill, speed, grace and endurance, Boogaard was the designated animal, a fisticuff freak show adored by fans whether they wore suits or bragged of drinking beer for breakfast with bellies as proof.

In 287 games, he had a total of 17 points, three goals and 14 assists. But he did rack up 633 penalty minutes during his career, including the playoffs. He was generally considered the number one fighter in the game, going by the nickname of The Boogeyman. His most notable accomplishment was shattering the cheek bone of rival enforcer Todd Fedoruk so badly in 2006 that it had to be rebuilt with metal and mesh. Which of course is no accomplishment at all.

Fighting in hockey has been curtailed to some degree. There are penalties for fighting in the NHL, some of them severe. But it will never be rooted out, because the NHL doesn’t want it rooted out. There are still moments when referees clear out like rubberneckers to allow players to go mano a mano. The fans of course love it, screaming to the rafters with bloodlust, and that’s why half of them go to a hockey game. There is even a website called Hockeyfights.com that keeps records of every fight that has occurred, including the 61 that Boogaard had when he played.

Which is why Boogaard was stoked by team doctors with painkillers, to flail his fists no matter how much the pain, to be The Intimidator.

Fighting in hockey will never be rooted out, because the NHL doesn’t want it rooted out.

Which is why I find what happened to him just as horrific as the New Orleans Saints’ Bountygate program in the National Football League, as disturbing as the likelihood of pro football players acquiring chronic traumatic encephalopathy once their playing days are over because of repeated concussions.

Branch’s story should be required reading for anyone who wants to know the true nature of the pro sports machine. This is not a story based on foggy sources; it is based on page after page after page of documents showing the incomprehensible degree to which Boogaard was given painkillers and sleeping aids by the Rangers and the Wild doctors to the point where he became addicted and was still given them after it was common knowledge he was addicted. The story also shows how players, particularly those at the low end fighting to keep their jobs, aren’t flesh and blood human beings to team management in any pro sport, but cogs to be used and abused to the fullest extent possible, then summarily spit out once they are deemed useless.

According to Branch’s story, there was a 33-day stretch starting in October 2008 in which Boogaard received at least 195 hydrocodone pills from six different doctors, including the Wild medical director Sheldon Burns, after losing a tooth in a fight (hydrocodone is generally known by the brand name Vicodin).  There was the 27-day stretch beginning on Dec. 4, 2008 in which Boogaard was prescribed 110 hydrocodone pills. There was the 26-day stretch after the season in April of 2009 in which Boogaard was prescribed a mix of 220 painkillers, OxyContin and Perocet and Vicodin, an average of roughly eight a day. It was also during the same month that Boogaard had surgeries a week apart on his nose and shoulder, a clear indication of the pain he played in during the season.

During a three-month period in the off-season of 2009 two doctors, once again including Burns, prescribed 30 pills each of Ambien on five different occasions.

Boogard also found other sources of pain pills among street dealers. According to his brother, his size was such that he sometimes took as many as 30 painkillers a day and as many as eight at a time to numb the agony. But that was Boogaard’s reality when you are known as the Boogeyman: play through pain if you want to play at all, suck it up and shut up and keep those fists cracking.

Was it any surprise that Boogard was on his way to becoming a drug addict?

Of course not.

During training camp in the fall of 2009, it was obvious to the Wild management he had a serious problem. He was placed in the league’s substance-abuse program and went to a live-in rehabilitation center for drug addiction to narcotic painkillers and sleeping pills. He was in the program for roughly a month when he rejoined the Wild on Oct. 9, 2009. Twelve days later he admirably fulfilled his enforcer role when he badly beat opposing player David Koci.

Wild management must have been pleased that Boogard was back beating the crap out of someone, but they also probably realized that it was no longer prudent to give him narcotic painkillers, since they had already sent him to rehab. Instead a new cocktail emerged, according to Branch’s reporting—the antidepressant Trazodone, a painkiller called Tramadol, and six injections of Toradol in a 10-day stretch in January of 2010 after a shoulder injury.

Boogard’s body was clearly a wreck. The Wild dumped him after the 2009-2010 season. But then the Rangers stepped in. Remarkably, the team knew that he had been in drug rehab, but they still offered him a four-year, $6.5 million contract to intimidate other players and continue his role as a crowd-pleasing freak show.

Boogaard suffered at least three major injuries with the Rangers due to fighting—a broken bridge in his teeth, an injured hand and a broken nose. But the Rangers, apparently hoping against hope there was still some ounce of fight left, gave him many of the same drugs that had caused his addiction with the Wild. On Dec. 9, 2010, Boogard’s season ended when he suffered a concussion in a fight.

But team doctors from both the Rangers and the Wild continued to give him medication after he complained of chronic insomnia—both Ambien and Xanax. By March of 2011, with his career effectively over, Boogaard was spending thousands of dollars on painkillers. He was slithering downward, bored, lonely, erratic, sending out thousands of text messages. Given the road to addiction hell that the NHL had helped place him on, it seems hardly a shock that he died of an overdose several months later.

“Derek was an addict,’ his father, Len Boogaard, told The Times. “But why was he an addict? Everyone said he had ‘off-ice issues.’ No, it was hockey.”

In brief statements to The Times, both the Wild and the Rangers said Boogaard had been medically treated in a responsible and professional manner.

Which may be the most horrible element of all.