Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hockey enforcers paying horrible price

By now it is rather apparent that Derek Boogaard, the New York Rangers’ enforcer, was a troubled young man.
Boogaard was 28 years of age when his body was discovered in his Minneapolis apartment on May 13 at 6:30 pm. One season into a four-year, US$6.5-million contract with the New York Rangers, Boogaard hadn’t played since suffering a concussion in a fight during a game on Dec. 9.
It was the 66th and final bout of his NHL career.
According to the Hennepin County Medical Examiners’ Office, which issued its report on Friday, “Cause of death is mixed alcohol and oxycodone toxicity.”
Oxycodone is used to treat moderate to severe pain. It is a narcotic pain reliever and is highly addictive. It has, in fact, been compared to heroin; in some corners, it is referred to as Hillbilly Heroin. It is evil.
What was especially chilling, however, was one sentence in an ensuing statement from Boogaard’s family.
“After repeated courageous attempts at rehabilitation and with the full support of the New York Rangers, the NHLPA, and the NHL,” the statement read, “Derek had been showing tremendous improvement but was ultimately unable to beat this opponent.”
Boogaard, the 6-foot-7, 270-pounder who had laid out many an opposing player, lost his last fight.
On the heels of that statement came a story by Allan Maki in The Globe and Mail in which Kurt Walker, another former NHL enforcer, talked of gobbling pain killers — especially Xanax and Valium — like Christmas candy. It took an intervention and rehab to save Walker.
Boogaard wasn’t so fortunate.
When the Rangers sent Boogaard home in March, it was reported that they wanted him to begin working on his conditioning for next season. However, Larry Brooks of the New York Post reported Sunday that “management essentially staged an intervention with Boogaard at the club's practice rink in late March that resulted in (his) re-entry into the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program.”
And we now know how that turned out.
What we don’t know is how many concussions Boogaard suffered during a hockey career that, according to hockeyfights.com, included 184 bouts since the fall of 1999, or how much those fights impacted Boogaard’s abbreviated life.
But the fact that he was using Oxycodone is frightening, as is the story that Walker told Maki.
It turns out that a lot of this will be familiar to medical professionals working with patients who are trying to deal with chronic pain.
One such professional, who has been working in the acute side of a B.C. hospital while following the concussions-in-hockey debate, wrote via email:
“I am seeing patients whose lives have been ruined by chronic pain treated with narcotics and then having to deal with the impact of addictions. Many of them having emotional or cognitive issues going into it. Lots of post-traumatic stress and abuse and psychiatric diagnoses.”
In other words, people like Derek Boogaard and Kurt Walker are hardly alone out there. The question, however, is how many former and present-day hockey players are fighting this same battle?
The evidence proving concussions are a horrible hockey problem now is so one-sided as to be laughable. (See the latest issue of Macleans or visit macleans.ca for even more evidence, including the case of Eric Lindros, who had what should have been a hall-of-fame career short-circuited by concussions. In this same story, former WHLer Kevin Kaminski explains how he believes post-concussion syndrome cost him his marriage.)
Boogaard, meanwhile, was working on a book — Meet the Boogey Man: Fighting My Way to the Top — with author Ross Bernstein. Appearing on Puck Daddy Radio last week, Bernstein told of being on a golf course one day last summer when Boogaard called him.
“I need you to come get me,” Boogaard told Bernstein, who promptly asked: “Well, where are you?”
Boogaard’s response was: “I don’t know.”
Devin Wilson, a former teammate of Boogaard’s with the Prince George Cougars, was in the process of purchasing a New York condo with his buddy. Thus, Wilson was able to watch Boogaard as he attempted to deal with his latest concussion.
"It was frustrating because we couldn't go out without his head spinning again,” Wilson told Jason Peters of the Prince George Citizen. “One thing that nobody knows is that riding in cabs through New York, he would just start spinning. He'd have his hands on his head and he'd say, 'I need to get out right now' and we'd end up walking like 60 blocks home. I knew (the concussion) was bad.”
Boogaard’s family has turned his brain over to Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. If, as anticipated, Boogaard’s brain shows signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) it will mean that the veritable flood of evidence has moved closer to the WHL’s doorstep.
At the time of his death, Boogaard was only eight years removed from having played in the WHL, where he was involved in 70 fights in 172 regular-season games.
All of this should be enough to make any parent wonder about sending a child off to play in a league that outlaws neither fighting nor headshots.
Stu Grimson, a former WHL/NHL enforcer who practises law in Nashville and also works as an analyst on Predators’ broadcasts, admitted to Maki that recent developments have him feeling conflicted.
“Part of me says, ‘How does a sport so bent on cutting down blows to the head still allow two players to throw bare-fisted punches at one another's head?’ How do you reconcile that?” Grimson said. “But part of me also says the way the sport is played, if you have someone like me on the bench, the other team knows it could be held accountable. It's a tough issue.”
There is no denying that it is a tough issue.
But is it any tougher than what Boogaard went through? Or what Kurt Walker and who knows how many others are going through?

gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca
     
gdrinnan.blogspot.com
     
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