Derek Boogaard, the Boogeyman, who was found dead last Friday in his apartment in Minneapolis, was a forward for the New York Rangers, and the only player on the team who was the best in the world at his role. Boogaard was the team’s sergeant-at-arms, the player whose responsibility it is to protect his teammates from being abused, leaned-on, harmed, or forcefully negated by the other team’s fearsome players. Hockey is a game of unabashed intimidation, and it is easy to play a threatening style that makes less bruising players shy and therefore less effective. For years the Philadelphia Flyers were known for a menacing game that gave other teams pause. Players were sometimes known to feel indisposed on the day before they had to play the Flyers, and this was known as having a case of the Philadelphia flu.
The rules in hockey protect players only to a degree. Referees sometimes miss infractions, or one overlooks what another won’t, leaving the players uncertain about how far they can press matters. Hockey is also the only major sport in which players are armed with clubs, and the only one to unfold at such ferocious speed. Furthermore, there are no out of bounds for the players and long intervals of engagements between whistles, during which resentments smolder and sometimes ignite. Boogaard was the peacemaker charged with seeing that teams behaved politely when they visited Madison Square Garden, or acted thoughtfully as hosts. Earlier in the season, there was a dramatic moment when the Calgary Flames became enraged at one of their players having been rudely handled by a Ranger. For about forty-five seconds, they tried to run over every Ranger they could, and it looked as if someone might be hurt—hockey collisions being no joke. Finally, there was a whistle, and Boogaard came on the ice. While the Flames waited for the face-off, they directed a certain amount of lip at him, like birds in a tree chattering at a passing cat. A slight smile, nearly a smirk, crossed Boogaard’s face. He said merely, “I’m right here,” meaning for anyone who wanted to ask him to dance. The linesman dropped the puck, and the game became suddenly orderly and serious and civil.
How respected a fighter is in the N.H.L. is measured by how often he fights. The players who are less feared, or who are trying to establish themselves, fight more often. Boogaard fought infrequently. Since his death, other fighters have been interviewed and one of them described Boogaard as being “definitely at the top of the list of guys you really didn’t want to run into. If you had to, you had to. That’s our job. But he had the potential to hurt you”—hence the nickname.
Players able to frighten other players are as difficult to find as players who can score goals. Boogaard was six feet eight inches tall, and sometimes weighed as much as two hundred and eighty pounds. He didn’t move quickly, but players who didn’t get out of his way resolved to pay closer attention to Boogaard’s whereabouts. There are hockey players who provoke and antagonize and often carry things too far, but this was not Boogaard’s style. His presence was stately. He was more Gary Cooper than Charles Bronson. The Rangers best goal-scorer, a Slovak named Marián Gáborík, played with Boogaard for the Minnesota Wild, and was pleased when he came to the Rangers, because with Boogaard on his team he felt safer. Gáborík and Boogaard had the same agent who said over the weekend that when Boogaard became a free agent, there were as many teams interested in him as had been interested in Gáborík.
I admire hockey fighters, and I don’t care for it when people refer to them as goons. It is an uninformed point of view and disrespectful. Before Boogaard came to New York, he played five years in Minnesota. He was known for his remorseless effectiveness on the ice, but also for being deeply involved with the team’s charities. In New York he had a charity called the Boogaardians, which saw to it that military families had tickets to Rangers games at the Garden. He had not had a good first year in New York, and he had told friends that he was looking forward to the coming one. In January he had fought and got a concussion and had gone home for the rest of the season. For a while, to avoid headaches, he had to keep to dark rooms and wear sunglasses when he went out. He lived on West Fifty-seventh Street and spent a good part of the day walking around the city. He had the sort of bland looks of a construction worker, and probably didn’t stand out, even with his size. What killed him isn’t yet known, although over the weekend it was announced that his family had donated his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine, which studies brain trauma and is very interested in the effects on the brain of fighting in hockey. For out-and-out body-maiming violence, nothing approaches football, of course, or boxing, but hockey fights can be difficult to watch. I enjoy them (sometimes) when they are retributive, when a grievous infraction has been overlooked by the referees, and one bruiser confronts another. But I wouldn’t miss them if they were taken away from the sport. Nevertheless, I know I am not the only one who had been looking forward to the Rangers home opener, and hearing the announcer say, “Number Ninety-four, Derek Boooooooooooogaaaaard,” and watching him step onto the ice, a battleship among the swifter, more diminutive members of the fleet.