When Derek Boogaard died, the hockey world had almost forgotten about him. He’d been off the ice for six months, reportedly suffering from chronic post-concussion symptoms, not practicing with the team, often not even in New York. Like many players on the long-term IR, his activities were of little interest to the fans or the media. Like many aging enforcers, his absence was acceptable and unremarkable. Maybe he would come back, maybe he wouldn’t, but either way, nobody was exactly holding their breath. Every time the Venerable Sidney goes off the roster, the hockey world immediately launches into a tense Crosby-Watch, but there was no such thing as Boogaard-Watch.
Ironically, Derek was more dead to the hockey world while he was still living than he has been since. After his overdose, and especially after the three-part New York Times exposé on the trajectory that brought him there, his hungry ghost has haunted the NHL. He died a bad death, and in some way- indirectly, maybe, through neglect and denial and various other sins of omission- he died at our collective hands. The responsibility the hockey world never took for his life has become a responsibility we cannot escape for his death. We think about it still.
Now, nearly a year later, the NYT has come out with a follow-up piece tracing Len Boogaard’s attempts to puzzle out the train of causation that led his son to that fatal combination of alcohol and Percocet. While the first NYT series posited CTE as the proximate cause of Derek’s trouble, Len’s research tells a somewhat different and equally troubling story. Piecing together four years of medical records, cell phone logs, and financial documents, what emerges is the outline of a massive addiction problem. Dozens of doctors, hundreds of prescriptions, thousands of pills, year after year, from 2008-2011. Boogaard was a huge man, true, but looking at the list of medications and the frequency with which they were prescribed, he also must have built up a huge tolerance. It’s a list that looks like it would kill a normal person ten times over. It’s insane.
It makes me wonder if, in focusing so much of our outrage and guilt over his death on CTE, we are missing an even more important issue. As this Slate article points out, the popular conversation about CTE has outpaced the science. Journalists and sports fans routinely assume a direct link between CTE and psychological and emotional problems that has not entirely been proven. While the signs of the disease have been found in post-mortem in the brains football players who did suffer and died badly, like Junior Seau, they’ve also been found in the brains of ex-players who were by all accounts mentally healthy. It is possible that, in pinning all our fears on concussions, we are overlooking the other factors in athletes’ lives that predispose them to addiction and mental illness.
Professional sports are a world of pain. We seldom consider this, although we are well aware of the frequency and severity of injuries. But though we see people getting hurt all the time, we don’t see very much suffering. Players are always presented to us placidly lying down for stitches, joking with media about their knee rehab program, smiling through broken teeth. They don’t look like they’ve been hurt. They don’t look like people who’ve suffered something. They seem fine. So we wince and laugh and praise their toughness, and go on with our lives figuring that they’re somehow just a more badass class of person than ourselves.
We thought Derek Boogaard was the ultimate badass. His reputation was built on a facade of incredible strength and implacable toughness. The Boogeyman. People loved to see him absorb pain and inflict it in equal measure, confident that he would always come out in the post-game interviews smiling and amiable, reassuring us that nobody really got hurt.
But the medical records make it amply clear that he was in constant pain.
We thought Derek Boogaard was tough, and maybe in the beginning he was. But by the end, his toughness was a chemical cocktail of painkillers, antidepressants, and sleeping pills. How often does this happen? How much of what we call stoicism in hockey is really just numbness? How many men in this game, every day, are only able to keep doing this job because of their own personal narcotic blends? The relationship between CTE and addiction is still being studied. The relationship between taking many hundreds of Vicodin and addiction, however, is pretty well established. We don’t need any additional scientific research to understand that people who get hurt a lot and get prescribed a lot of intensive-strength pain medication are likely to form some very bad habits. We already know that.
And yet, despite the fact that hockey obviously puts players at high risk for addiction, despite the fact that hundreds of players throughout the history of game have died or declined due to problems with drugs both legal and otherwise, the NHL’s treatment programs remain a mystery. We are assure that they exist, of course, that resources are available and everything is being done and it’s all under control, but no specifics are ever offered. No interviews are ever given, no courses of rehabilitation ever outlined. As much as we complain that the NHL’s supplementary discipline and officiating offices operate shrouded in secrecy, these are models of transparency compared to the NHL’s drug abuse treatment programs.
Len Boogaard’s findings do not show much evidence of coherent policies to either prevent addictions or treat them. Derek’s problem was conspicuous, and yet seemed to have no trouble finding team doctors willing to continue prescribing him pills, often without an examination or even a notation in his file. His treatments do not appear to have been overseen by any one physician. Rather he was able to cobble together an assortment of both team and non-team doctors who were willing to prescribe overlapping courses of Vicodin and Percocet amounting to over a hundred pills per month. These he supplemented with additional drugs from street dealers, as well as prescriptions for sleeping pills. His use in 2008 was so extreme that the Wild forced him into treatment and, to their credit, tried to subsequently enforce a regimen of strictly non-narcotic painkillers through the 2009-2010 season. However, he continued to suffer from chronic pain and was still taking regular cycles of pills and injections. Although technically ‘clean’ of the drugs he’d been in treatment for, his body was still regularly full of supplementary chemicals. The man was still struggling.
And then, after all of this, the Rangers signed him to a four-year, $6.5 million contract. A month into it, one of their team doctors prescribed him Vicodin again.
Let this sink in for a minute. The New York Rangers, who knew through Doug Risebrough that Derek Boogaard had developed a serious painkiller problem with the Wild and that he had already been through rehab once, hired him to be their long-term enforcer. Think about that logic: Hey, let’s take a guy who’s already got a bunch of chronic injuries and has already struggled with a narcotic addiction of epic proportions and pay him a disproportionately huge salary to deliberately re-injure his already chronically broken hands and face for four years. The New York Times piece notes “the difficulty of treating a player subjected to continual pain without the use of powerful pain pills.” It was so difficult for the Rangers, apparently, that they didn’t even try. They put him back on the same stuff he’d gone on rehab to get off of.
On subjects like this, the sort that provoke moral outrage, people tend to throw around words like ‘sickening’ and ‘disgusting’ pretty lightly, but in this case, I don’t think there’s any other way to think about it: the Ranger’s decision to sign Boogaard and use him in that role, knowing what they knew, is fucking sickening. It is absolutely morally bankrupt. To take a man who has already just barely scraped through a painkiller addiction and put him in the path of so much more goddamn pain, pain of the sort that may well be impossible to treat without resorting to the same drugs he can’t safely touch, is beyond irresponsible. To then prescribe him those very drugs again is abusive and exploitative. It’s almost sadistic.
To me, and you may disagree but let me make the case, the worst thing about hockey is not that it damages people. It’s that it makes use of damaged people. Players’ desire to keep playing no matter what the cost to themselves, teams’ desire to squeeze whatever value they can out of a contract no matter what the cost to the player, and fans’ perverse perception that there is nothing worse in the universe than a promising career that ends early; these three factors conspire to keep guys in the game who should not be there anymore. There are some things- and among these I would include chronic concussion symptoms, serious addictions, and signs of severe mental illness- that should not be played through. There are some things that should end a hockey career.
This is a very dangerous game. It destroys people. In fact, it has a long, horrible history of destroying people, of taking talented boys and using them until there’s nothing left to use, leaving behind damaged men made old before their time, with chronic pain and psychological baggage and no marketable skills. In the olden days, for many men the end of a pro hockey career meant the beginning of a life of menial labor and alcoholism. As I’ve discussed before, the All-Star Game was actually invented as a solution to this problem, to create pensions for ex-players and their families, to raise money so that men who’d been ruined by hockey could survive.
Nowadays, we have little sympathy for the idea that players can still be ruined by hockey. We think of the retired as spoiled millionaires who probably spend the rest of their lives blissfully playing video games and boating drunkenly. But if the Boogaard case makes anything clear, it’s that the money does not necessarily mean much in the face of serious post-hockey damage. All his millions did for him is buy him drugs and isolation. All they did was fund his death.
Hockey is a sport that needs aftercare. The NHL needs treatment programs for addiction and mental illness that are not focused on getting men back into the game but on getting them out of it. It needs mechanisms for identifying the guys who are suffering seriously and getting them off the ice, into rehab, and eventually into post-hockey careers. For the bright and the talented, there are always job offers, for the superstars there is always the option of a comfy, shiftless retirement, but pro hockey is full of men who never played enough years or a big enough role to accumulate millions, who sacrificed much of their education and personal development in pursuit of the dream. Fans are apt to justify not caring about them by pointing out that there’s no reason why the professional transition from sports to non-sports should be especially traumatic, but as the Slate article points out, we have ample evidence that it is anyway. Whether or not you believe it’s a valid problem, it remains a real one.
The NHL/NHLPA substance abuse treatment program needs to be more and it needs to be more public. Not with names, of course; privacy is essential to such programs, although I bet a successful treatment-and-transition initiative would generate more than a few guys who’d love to tell their stories. But even anonymously, there needs to be some public awareness of what the program is and how it’s helping. We, as fans, need to know that the game we love and the League we pay are taking some responsibility for the damage they do. We need to take some of the stigma off of players who have such illnesses and make use of such programs. Hiding it behind a wall of complete secrecy only contributes to the impression that addiction is shameful and the League doesn’t give a fuck about players who suffer from it.
In our alarm over CTE and brain trauma, we focus entirely on causes, but what if we’re wrong about the causes? What if the problem isn’t really concussions at all? What if concussions, in the end, only account for a small fraction of hockey-related psychological problems? What if we reduce concussions and pat ourselves on the back for doing something while dozens of players are still suffering the exact same problems Boogaard had due to chronic pain, closeted mental illness, and dysfunctional treatments for both? We believe that the League must reduce head hits, and it must, but even with a dramatic decline in concussions, hockey will still cause pain and it will still cause addiction. There is no simple equation: eliminate fighting, give out enough punitive suspensions and no one will ever suffer like Boogaard again. There will always be physical damage in hockey. There will always be psychological damage in hockey. The measure of the League isn’t whether it has the godlike power to prevent pain from happening, it’s how it treats those who’ve gotten the worst of it.
By that measure, it failed Derek Boogaard miserably, and for all we know, it is continuing to fail other players right now. Until it learns how to take care of its own, this League deserves to be haunted.