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Great Journalism: The New York Times Series on Derek Boogaard and NHL Enforcers

The story of Derek Boogaard’s short life in the NHL is summarized tidily halfway through the 15,000-word tome that the New York Times just unspooled:

“Boogaard went nearly five years between N.H.L. goals and scored three times in 277 games. He spent 1,411 minutes on the ice and 589 minutes in the penalty box.”

That’s not an athlete, that’s a problem inmate. Yet by the end of John Branch’s stories, you’ll have a profound respect for hockey enforcers. Rarely have goons been treated so nobly.

It would be close to say that the Times gave Boogaard the royal treatment, except that a king would count himself fortunate to receive the same. Here’s the first part, “A Boy Learns to Brawl.” Here’s the second, “Blood on the Ice.” The third is “A Brain ‘Going Bad.’” For those more audio-videotorially inclined, here’s the corresponding video series by Shayla Harris. The takeaways here are that the Times, which has sicced John Branch on the sports head-trauma beat for a while now, and before him Alan Schwarz, has sunk vast resources into the topic (a practice that usually pays off in awards-season hardware for the Gray Lady and, quite possibly for the rest of us, societal change); and that there really is a difference between living and dying in New York vs. anywhere else. Traded Signed from the Minnesota Wild in 2010, Boogaard’s novella-length obituary and half-hour documentary would have been less likely if he were not, at the time of his demise, a New York Ranger.

The contrast with another longform piece on Derek Boogaard, by Kevin Hoffman for City Pages in Minneapolis, is unmistakable. Hoffman deployed the term “Boogeyman” 83 times in a 3,585-word story. If Hoffman overemphasizes the enforcer’s monstrous nickname, it’s due in part to fanboy awe. When Boogaard was traded to the Rangers, the City Pages editor noted in a blog post (headline: “Bye Bye Boogeyman”) that New York had decried Boogaard’s remarkable lack of scoring, “which just goes to show that the Boogeyman is way too manly for the effete Manhattanites.” That could be tongue-in-cheek with a wired-shut jaw, but it’s also a fair summary of the attitudes that keep ass-kickings enshrined in sports, and keep ass-kickers employed unless they die in a miasma of concussions and painkillers at age 28. ‘Cause that’s what men do, you know. We beat the shit out of each other and leave goal-scoring to babies and pre-teen girls.

Already Gabriel Sherman at that selfsame New York has hailed the Times series as exemplifying sports journalism’s turn from boys’ club yuksterism to a department bent on cleaning up the games. Here, head trauma, painkillers and hockey’s culture of bloodsport here join a line of recent targets that include steroid abuse, NCAA cronyism, agent sleaze, booster sleaze, child-rape coverup sleaze, et al. You don’t leave the Boogaard stories hating hockey any more than you finish Fast Food Nation hating the taste of beef and potatoes. But it should make sports fans reflect on their cheers for on-ice bare-knuckle boxing. Hells yeah! Fuck him up, early onset dementia!

Because certain things stick in your mind once you learn them. The image of Boogaard’s knuckles beaten back into his hand and up toward his wrist, from punching skulls, for instance. The plastic Easter eggs full of narcotics that he would hide around his apartment, to keep himself from devouring them too quickly. The nearly 14,000 texts he sent last  February as he became lonely and isolated, sidelined with concussions and addiction. The Boogaard bobblehead with bobblefists that his minor-league team in Houston produced. The sad, late practices that the gentle young Boogaard would undertake to improve his skills, in hopes he could make his way with scoring, with talent, instead of as a charging lummox. Boogaard plugging fries through a missing-tooth smile when he spent a summer with his jaw wired shut. The concussion test in which he couldn’t think of a single word that begins with the letter “R.” That happened in 2009, before he was traded to signed with the Rangers. But still. That one should be easy.

The NHL seems less than impressed with the findings of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the disease that Boogaard’s and three other NHL players’ brains have evinced (out of four the center has posthumously examined). If you want to get to the brain goods, start at the 7:00 mark of the third video and stick around to watch Commissioner Gary Bettman dodge those findings like a thrown wrench.

Longer Bettman: “Part of the issue is the handful of samples that they have, you don’t know whether or not people would ever suffer effects because some of the preliminary stages were there. And you don’t know that if they looked inside of your brain or mine right now what they would find. I think while their work is worthwhile, the people we talk to think that their tendency to reach conclusions at a very preliminary stage is great for headlines but not necessarily advancing the research.”

Shorter Bettman: If you think the NHL’s gonna yank fighting out of hockey, get your head checked.

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