Hockey doesn't show up on a toxicology report. The coroner will tell you that it was too much alcohol and too much oxycodone that stopped Boogaard's heart on an early morning last May, and the NHL will tell you the same. But it was hockey that caused Boogaard to turn to pills, hockey that caused him to need them constantly, ever upping his dosage—hundreds of pills a month, for years—and hockey that made it so easy for him to get the pills that killed him.
It's the sheer numbers that get you. Boogaard's father, a policeman, launched his own quest to document his late son's prescription records, and shared it with the New York Times' John Branch, who authored an impressive and revealing three-part series on Boogaard last year. The numbers make you wonder how Boogaard survived as long as he did. Even at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds (more in his later, bloated years), he was rapidly poisoning himself with painkillers and sedatives.
•In October 2008, Boogaard had a fight with Florida's Wade Belak. Boogaard took an early shot, and never seemed able to gain his footing. He continued to throw haymakers, but left his face wide open and took multiple shots directly to the jaw. ( HockeyFights.com's audience gave Belak the win.) He lost a tooth, and received a prescription for hydrocodone. Over the next month, Boogaard would receive at least 195 pills.
• In April of 2009, Boogaard underwent two surgeries. One on his nose, one on his shoulder. Typical end-of-year operations for hockey players to clean up the damage accrued over a long season. Over the next month, Boogaard would receive at least 220 pills, both oxycodone and hydrocone. When he returned to training camp that Fall, he would be placed in the league's substance abuse program.
• In Boogaard's one season in New York, a Rangers doctor wrote him nine prescriptions for Ambien. On one occasion Boogaard's father visited his son, and noted that it took him just three days to finish a bottle containing 14 pills.
For the NHL, the most damning fact is that Boogaard was given pills like candy, from just about everyone he asked. Over a six-month stretch in Minnesota, he received prescriptions from eight separate Wild team doctors, as well as two other physicians outside the team. Boogaard, solidly in the throes of mounting addiction, was able to bypass recommended dosages by simply going to a different doctor. The NHL needs to figure out—for the future, not for any post-mortem accountability—whether there is a system in place for league-affiliated doctors to access and share patient information. A doctor should be able to open up a spreadsheet and see just how many pills a player is taking, or has taken, before rubber-stamping yet another prescription. And if it's too many, what then? That's a serious question, considering Rangers doctors continued to prescribe hydrocodone and Ambien, even though they were aware Boogaard had been treated for abuse of those very substances.
Boogaard was supposedly able to get some of his prescriptions merely by texting a team physician, without even a face-to-face meeting. That sounds about right. Last year, I spoke to a former teammate of another recently-deceased NHL enforcer. He told me that one of his team doctors was a frequent guest at player parties, and would always make sure to bring his prescription pad. Anything anybody wanted, it would be theirs with a slash of a pen, to fill at their leisure.
Getting pills out of the game? They are the game. NHL players, not just enforcers, take a beating every single night, and that's no excuse for being at less than 100 percent the next night. They can't rest, they can't heal, but through the miracle of modern medicine, they can take a magic pill and feel no pain. There are just as many doctors working for a team as there are actual off days without a skate. This is the way of the sport, and don't let anyone try to claim "no one gets hurt in a hockey fight." Boogaard, for all his own faults, found himself in a world that encourages continued addiction rather than admitting weakness, that eliminates accountability by employing a phalanx of scrip-happy yes-men, and then, when it all goes wrong, clams up and deflects further investigation rather than openly confronting a problem or seeking a solution. The sport hurt Derek Boogaard, and it made it painfully easy to make the pain go away, a few hours at a time, while he killed himself.
"Derek was an addict," Len Boogaard said. "But why was he an addict? Everyone said he had ‘off-ice' issues. No, it was hockey."