Three for the price of one:
There can be no tougher time for parents than when faced with the death of one of their children.
But that is the situation faced since Friday by Joanne and Len Boogaard, whose 28-year-old son, Derek, was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment by his two brothers.
Derek, who grew up in Regina and for whom a memorial service will be in the Saskatchewan capital on Saturday, was 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds. He played five seasons with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, and had just completed the first year of a four-year, US$6.5-million contract with the New York Rangers.
However, he hadn’t played since Dec. 9 when, in a game against the Senators in Ottawa, he ended up concussed after a fight with Matt Carkner.
If you’re a hockey fan, you know that Boogaard was an enforcer.
And it just might be that his death becomes something of a tipping point. That’s because, as Michael Russo of the Minneapolis StarTribune reported immediately after it happened, Boogaard’s parents signed papers Saturday afternoon that will allow their son’s brain to be studied by researchers at Boston University.
This doesn’t mean, or even infer, that brain trauma had anything to do with Boogaard’s death, the cause of which won’t be known for a while, as toxicology tests have yet to be completed. An autopsy was done Saturday but results have yet to be released.
This, of course, is all about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), brain degeneration that has been found in a number of ex-football players as well as former NHL tough guys Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert.
This is about scientists and researchers trying to learn about damage that may be caused by blows to the heads of young athletes.
“Derek loved sports and obviously in particular hockey,” Boogaard’s brother, Ryan, told Russo, “so we believe Derek would have liked to assist with research on a matter that had affected him later on in his career.”
According to the website hockeyfights.com, Boogaard had 184 fights from 1999-2000 through that bout with Carkner.
Think about that for a moment and try to imagine how many headshots he absorbed.
Of those bouts, 64 were in the NHL, 48 in the AHL and 70 were in 174 regular-season WHL games, where he played with the Regina Pats, Prince George Cougars and Medicine Hat Tigers.
While many hockey leagues, including the Ontario and Quebec Major Junior leagues, have rules prohibiting headshots, the WHL does not.
That was never more in evidence than during the recently completed championship final between the Kootenay Ice and Portland Winterhawks. Portland forward Riley Boychuk and Kootenay defenceman James Martin both received major penalties for hits that appeared to be high. However, neither player was suspended by the WHL.
Writer Jeff Bromley, who attended games in Cranbrook on behalf of the Cranbrook Daily Townsman, wrote on his blog: “The explanation I was given (for no suspensions) is that the WHL has yet to adopt a check-to-the-head rule like the NHL and the OHL or Q. It will likely be put in place over the summer but, as of now, it’s not there.”
It is shameful that the WHL, whose players suffered more than 100 concussions this season, doesn’t prohibit such hits. When it is addressed, presumably at the annual meeting in June, perhaps the WHL will show some real forward thinking and ban headshots and fighting.
And, then again, maybe not.
The Kootenay Ice, as you no doubt are aware, won the WHL championship on Friday in Portland, beating the Winterhawks 4-1 to win the best-of-seven affair in five games.
Going into the playoffs, one might have seen the Ice as a contender, but surely no one expected the kind of domination it showed.
En route to the title, the Ice went 16-3, that after losing two of its first three games, both to the Moose Jaw Warriors by 4-0 counts.
When the playoffs began, the Saskatoon Blades and Portland Winterhawks, each of them a conference leader, were seen as the favourites. The Ice took out the Blades in four games and the Winterhawks in five.
There is no doubt then as to which was the WHL’s best team in these playoffs.
Making the Ice’s run that much more remarkable is the fact that it did it with a rookie head coach in Kris Knoblauch.
Knoblauch, 32, spent the previous two seasons as an assistant coach under Mark Holick. When Holick left for the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, Jeff Chynoweth, the Ice’s president and general manager, at first was adamant that Knoblauch wouldn’t be the franchiseís next on-ice leader.
In the end, Chynoweth changed his mind. He hired a couple of older assistant coaches — Jerry Bancks, 55, and Todd Johnson, 39 — to ride shotgun, and it turned out to be a winning combination.
After the final game Friday in Portland, Knoblauch summed up the entire season when he told The Canadian Press that “I’m not sure we can top this. We played well as a team. I don’t know if I’ll be able to coach a group of players like this ever again.”
What the Ice did was catch lightning in a bottle, something that very few teams, even championships teams, are able to do. They lost two of their first three playoff games and then ran roughshod over the field. This was a dominant performance, as dominant as any in WHL history.
And it could be that the Ice players won’t realize the enormity of their accomplishment until their hockey-playing days are behind them.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)