This is Derek Boogaard, younger, still the same player.
He's skating toward the puck-handler on the boards, picking up speed, lowering his shoulder, taking aim. Then the puck-handler, almost in one motion, rids himself of the puck and ducks out to the right of the oncoming monolith who will soon grow to 6-foot-7, 270 pounds. Boogaard totally whiffs on the hit and tumbles backward over the boards, skates over helmet, through the protective glass. He lands on his ass, though, and works his way back upright. Gasps become laughs become claps, as the Boogeyman takes the ice and woozily finds his legs.
Despite its camcorder quality, this is perhaps the most splendid and endearing highlight of Boogaard's unlikely career, which ended with his death on Friday, at age 28, of unknown causes. Boogaard had almost no hockey skills. He couldn't skate, pass, or shoot, and, as you can see, he couldn't check either. He could do one thing: fight. The clip tells you a lot about Boogaard and why he played the way he did. It tells you even more about how goons make it in hockey and why they're never going away.
Look at this clip again. The setting seems all wrong. We might picture Boogaard playing before a full arena in Minnesota or maybe at Madison Square Garden. (The Boogeyman signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Rangers last summer.) Here, though, a teenage Boogaard throws his weight around at a prospects camp, on a tiny rink with a Pepsi sign and American and Canadian flags hastily affixed to the wall. It's a long way from wherever this is to Madison Square Garden.
But that's where it begins, in the low-wattage hockey markets. Goons are the soul of minor league hockey. The fights are often the best parts of the games, because the finesse players just don't have the speed or skill that makes the pro game exquisite. Many top NHL draft picks never play in the minors, or do so only briefly, because the game differs so much from the NHL. Others stay in college, Canadian major juniors, or European leagues, where rink size and officiating ensure that skill triumphs over strength.
Goons, however, are a constant presence in the minors. They don't advance in their organizations, if they're under contract with a big-league club at all, and they don't have to quit hockey, either. One such local goon was Jon Mirasty, whom ESPN once covered in great detail, back when he was the pride of Syracuse. Mirasty spent this year on the ECHL's Elmira Jackals, and the CHL's Fort Wayne Komets. He scored one goal for Elmira, his first at any level since 2007. My beloved 2000-01 New Haven Knights had four players with more than 150 penalty minutes—two with over 200. These players fought almost nightly. One of them, Chad Cabana, had racked up 163 penalty minutes (in 34 games!) for the 1997-98 Beast of New Haven, 251 penalty minutes for the 1998-99 Beast, and he returned to New Haven to break the 200-PIM barrier again when we joined the UHL's Knights. His equally goonish brother, Clint Cabana, managed 49 PIM in 15 games for the Knights. The Cabana Boys were local heroes, the closest thing we had to great athletes in New Haven. And they left only when the franchises folded or moved away. Countless goons have similar stories in similar towns.
But Boogaard was one of the goons who made it out, in part because he took his craft so seriously. (Boogaard spent every summer boxing with his brother, from a young age.) He fought his way through the Wild's affiliates, beginning with the ECHL's Louisiana IceGators, where he racked up 240 penalty minutes. Before being called up, Boogaard spent bits of the next two seasons with Minnesota's AHL team, the Houston Aeros, where he collected 447 penalty minutes, and one goal, in 109 games. After the lockout, Boogaard found playing time and success with the Wild, and he fought in some epic brawls along the way.
He had no greater rivalry than his with Georges Laraque, now retired, who played for the Oilers, Coyotes, Penguins, and Canadiens during the Boogeyman's time with the Wild. Laraque was big and tough, by NHL standards, but Boogaard was bigger and tougher.
After hearing of Boogaard's death, Laraque tweeted, "Only shit my condolences to the Boogaard family,Derek past away this morning,it was the thoughest guy in the NHL my friend and biggest rival." He probably means "holy shit"—his French tweet (Laraque is bilingual) says "mon dieu"—but the tweet compensates for its crudeness with the immediacy of Laraque's shock.
Boogaard's death sent shockwaves through the goon community, an underworld that Jake Bogoch covered for us last year. (Bogoch visited a camp that trains the hockey fighters of tomorrow. The camp's guest instructor, of course, was Derek Boogaard.) Goons respect each other, and respect the craft, even if hockey might seem bloody and lawless at times. The goon-on-goon fights stabilize the sport. It's single combat in the ancient sense.