Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review: Boy on Ice (2014)

By John Branch

"Boy on Ice" is not a typical biography.

For one thing, it's a fairly long book (327 pages plus notes) on a fairly short life (less than 30 years). For another, there's no happy ending; if anything, the final chapter still will be written down the road, even a few years after publication.

Yet the story of Derek Boogaard remains quite interesting in an odd sort of way, and with a little luck it is educational as well.

Boogaard was, in some ways, an unlikely figure to be a professional athlete. He grew up in Western Canada and played hockey, like every other boy, but he wasn't too good. Boogaard showed few signs that he'd grow into a relatively famous player.

But he did have one advantage on the ladder - size. Boogaard was always really big for his age. That meant he could be an enforcer in the game of hockey. Boogaard eventually grew into a body that was 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds.

The idea behind enforcers is that they try to protect the best players on their teams, try to stop opponents from taking liberties. That happens at times, but they also are asked to fight one of the opponents' big guys for one reason or another. Enforcers in that sense often play less than five minutes a game, leaving a thought of "what's the point?" to some.

Take it from a guy who wrote a book with such a player - if there's a path to the NHL, some people will take it. They have to make a decision to become a fighter. There are rewards and there are downsides. Derek didn't even like fighting, but it was a means to an end.

In the case of Boogaard, he was always big and willing, but it took a while for him to get good at it. Eventually, though, he became one of the toughest guys in the National Hockey League. You can argue about whether he was the toughest, but ultimately it doesn't matter. He was in the argument. Derek also was on the shy side, but he was great in the community and became popular with fans.

Enforcers make a deal when they fill that role - they will pay a price. It usually involves pain. Boogaard suffered a variety of injuries during the way, and it led to a lot of pain. Boogaard needed more and more pills to cope with it. He got those pills from team doctors in some cases, and from the street in others. Either way, Boogaard turned his body into a pharmacy. He died of a combination of alcohol and painkillers in 2011.

Branch received complete cooperation from the Boogaard family on telling the story. His father, a policeman by trade, is still trying to put all the pieces together and call attention to the issue. As a result, the book has all sorts of details about the life Derek was leading near the end. Records from banks, credit cards and cell phones help tell the story. But one part of the puzzle wasn't visible until after his death - Boogaard had CTE, brain damage. Researchers were shocked that someone in his 20s had so much damage, perhaps due to a series of concussions suffered in hockey.

How did this happen? That's still being sorted out. There were a lot of enablers along the way, and their stories wind through the courts. Even though we've learned a lot about concussions over the years, it's tough to know how far to move the line in contact sports in order to prevent them. Boogaard's father says Americans are more interested in solving the problem than Canadians, since Canada considers hockey a "sacred cow."

Branch's original series of newspaper articles for the New York Times won awards, and it's expanded into book form here. The story might have been better with about 50 pages removed in order to have more impact. But once Boogaard starts downhill - and you know where it's headed - it's impossible to look away. 

Stories about addiction - whether it's Eric Clapton or Dwight Gooden - generally aren't a whole lot of fun to read. Certainly, though, "Boy on Ice" serves as a fine case study for this type of situation in hockey. It's a story that cries out to teach some lessons to the rest of us, if only we could figure out what they are.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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