Tuesday, 5 June 2012

What We Can Learn From The Boogaard Story

No one can say with certainty that the death of Derek Boogaard is proof that all enforcers, both in Junior or the NHL, are at serious risk.  I would also offer the opinion that linking his death to the suicides of Wade Belak and Rick Rypien would be a mistake.  But reading his well-documented story about his path to the NHL can teach us quite a bit about the culture of fighting in hockey, and its impact on the sport.

Any hockey fan should read Punched Out, The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer, published last December in The New York Times, and watch the video of the same title produced by the paper.   It chronicles Boogaard’s youth, his development into a hockey enforcer and documents his injuries and struggles before this death.  A recent follow-up by John Branch was published on June 4th called In Hockey Enforcer’s Descent, a Flood of Prescription Drugs.  It is more of an indictment of the NHL’s policies surrounding substance abuse and control by team doctors in handing out prescriptions.

Beyond Boogaard’s individual story, there is much that we can learn about how players are encouraged to engage in fighting at a young age, and how hockey officials push those of a certain size into the role of enforcer.   In my previous post I tried to get inside the mind of the Junior player and present reasons why they accepted violence and fighting, either personally or on behalf of the team mates who filled those roles.   If you study the article and video published by The New York Times you can see examples of the theories put forward by the expert opinions I presented.

Below are some of the lessons evident in Boogaard’s story:

Lesson #1 – Junior hockey officials feed the meat grinder.

At a young age, coaches are pushing the "big guys" into the role of enforcer.  When players advance to the highest level of competition in Bantam, the level from which they are drafted into Junior Hockey, the pressure to stand out becomes intense. If you are not as talented as others in your league, and you are of a certain size, then coaches will tell you what is required to get drafted and keep your dream of a hockey career alive.  Players are reminded that they are expendable and can be cut at any time.  They will do anything to stay on the team.

From the Times article, “He knew,” Ripplinger said. “He was a smart guy. He knew he wasn’t going to be good enough to make it on skills alone, and he used his size to his advantage.  I remember him at 16 years old, pushing weights and boxing and stuff like that. He knew his job.”

Also from the video, “Junior Hockey scouts were there to look at another player.  Boogaard wasn't on the radar until he went crazy in a Bantam game.  Scouts were impressed and thought ‘he could be an animal one day’. “

There are those in Junior Hockey, like Don Hay, coach of the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, who will tell you that their job is to prepare players for the NHL, therefore fighting must remain in the junior game.  Given the slim odds that any Junior player will play professional hockey, it is far more likely that they push players into fighting in order to satisfy the expectations of the crowd and to sell tickets.  That means they are playing on the dreams of teenagers in order to fill arenas, and the coffers of the team owners.

Lesson #2 – People get hurt in hockey fights.

The list of Boogaard’s injuries, and of those that he punished with his fists, pretty much confirms that there are are lots of injuries in hockey fights.  Fedoruk describes his fight where Boogaard shattered his cheek bone which required metal plates to reconstruct his face.  Watch the fight scenes in the videos and listen to the litany of scarred hands, torn muscles, broken facial bones and concussions, and then try to tell someone that no one gets hurt.

I think you could say that it’s rare that people die as a result of fighting, but that almost every fight inflicts an injury of one type or another.  Collectively the large and small hurts contribute to short careers and early exits from the game.   Mat Sommerfeld, a noted Junior enforcer, talked in the video about fighting at a young age, “At  age 13 or 14 you might get into 5 fights in one week.  To stay on a team you have to do what you have to do.  It takes its toll.  I don't know if it was worth it.  It wasn't for me.”

Lesson #3 – The culture of fighting starts early.

Players are indoctrinated into the culture of fighting in Bantam and at every level above.   They are encouraged to play tougher, to get involved and they hear the praise from the coaches when a team mate returns from a fight.   Every Junior fight is uploaded to various fight websites and fans vote on who won.  Fighters are rated and those scores are added to sporting columns and discussed by fans on Facebook and Twitter.

From the Times article, talking about Boogaard when he was 16, “Boogaard took a swing with his long right arm. His fist smacked the opponent’s face and broke his nose. Coaches and scouts laughed as they congratulated Boogaard.”

In the fight scenes from the video you can hear the announcers laughing, praising a good punch to the face.   They promote his fighting prowess and praise his size and the power of his fists.  With the Wild, Boogaard, like other enforcers in other cities, gets his own highlight reel played on the big screen.

While interviewing Bettman, author Branch asked about concerns regarding fighting, specifically why the league allowed it.  His response, “We don't allow fighting, fighting is punished and penalized.”

That would be funny, if it wasn’t so sad.

Lesson #4 – Fighting may cause more concussions than reported.

Boogaard was not diagnosed with his first official concussion until he was in the NHL.  While being examined, the doctor asked him if he ever had these symptoms before.  Boogaard replied, Hundreds of times".   He talked openly about getting his bell rung on regular basis during the season and his father, Len Boogaard, says his concussion total was “probably in double digit figures.”

How many enforcers simply get up from a fight and skate to the box to serve their 5-minute penalty, perhaps avoiding any detection by team officials that something may be amiss with their player.  The enforcer rarely gets a regular shift and therefore not motivated to point out that he is suffering from a head trauma.  From an earlier post, In Their Own Words, here is a quote from Lyndon Byers, “I mean, you’re in a fight, you get punched out, you black out, you go blank, and deep down there’s a little voice going, C’mon, c’mon, come back!  So you come back and see the guy’s fist eight inches from your face. So is that a concussion?  Would I tell [team doctors] that I couldn’t play the next day?  No.”

Chris Nowinski, from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, "if you are Ignorant to the consequences then it's easy to get excited by the fights. If everyone knew what I knew, they wouldn't get excited.”

Bettman dismisses the studies from Boston University in his interview with Branch, “I think their work is worthwhile but people we talk to suggest that their tendency is to reach conclusions at a preliminary stage that is great for headlines.”

Lesson #5 – The NHL is immune to outside criticism.

I’m sure that the NHL understands the lessons above but don’t expect that it will have any immediate influence on their views on fighting.  Gary Bettman on eliminating fighting from the game, “There doesn't seem to be an overwhelming appetite or desire to go in that direction…. on the part of all constituent parties, including the players.”

Lessons are valuable only to those who are willing to learn.

Punched Out, The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer
Read the Article here.
Watch the Video here.

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