Derek Boogaard was a member of a vanishing breed. Once commonplace, the hockey enforcer has become more and more of a spare part that some teams no longer consider crucial.
Wes Walz was a teammate of Boogaard's with the Minnesota Wild. At the Minnesota memorial for Boogaard, who died a week ago Friday from what has been determined to be an accidental mixing of alcohol and oxycodone, Walz had something to tell the assembled mourners.
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"One thing I wanted to say that I think most people don't understand . . . I don't really think Derek liked to fight as much as people thought he did," Walz said. "I think it all comes down to his natural demeanor of being a sweetheart and overall a really nice human being. He didn't really like beating people up and hurting people, but he knew that's what he needed to do to live out his lifelong dream of playing in the National Hockey League."
Boogaard was one of the premier enforcers in the NHL. It's what got him the four-year, $6.5-million contract from the Rangers last summer.
But there are fewer true enforcers than just five or 10 years ago, with the specialization of fighting within the game and the institution of the instigator rule nearly two decades ago.
And with fewer and fewer opportunities to find jobs at the highest level of the game -- and even to find willing fight partners -- enforcers such as Boogaard, with limited hockey skills, have only a few minutes of ice time a night to make an impact the only way they know how.
It endears them to fans and teammates, but it has become an increasingly isolated job in the NHL, taking as much of a mental toll as the physical toll of repeatedly punching helmets and heads and taking as many blows as the enforcer can dish out.
"Mentally, it is a grind," said Islanders center Zenon Konopka, who was second in the league this past season with 25 fighting majors and led the league with 307 penalty minutes. "We chose this profession, so we know the risks and the rewards. But it's like any other job with its stressful times. You're going out every night knowing you have to be ready to fight. It can weigh on you."
On Feb. 11, the Islanders and Penguins were involved in a game that was marred by 346 penalty minutes and 10 ejections and resulted in a 10-game suspension for the Isles' Trevor Gillies for a hit on Eric Tangradi. Afterward, former Islanders GM Mike Milbury, now a TV analyst, said Gillies has no place in the game.
"People look at him and they see him fight or do what he does and they make assumptions," Konopka said of his Islanders teammate, who could not be reached for comment. "This is a real human being, with real worries about his job and a wife and two kids. He's doing what he does to keep his job, and people are saying he has no business being in the league. Like me, like Derek Boogaard, he fought every night in the East Coast League for $386 a week after taxes. We've worked hard to get where we are and people want to dismiss us as goons or thugs. It can be really, really tough."
Fewer jobs, more fights
Nick Kypreos made it to the NHL with the Washington Capitals in the 1989-90 season. That season, the Caps had three players with more than 200 penalty minutes: super pest Dale Hunter (233), Neil Sheehy (291) and Alan May (339).
Kypreos, who had an eight-year NHL career that included the Stanley Cup with the 1993-94 Rangers, now covers the NHL as an analyst for Rogers SportsNet in Canada. So in just the last 20 years, he has seen the enforcer's role become more specialized -- and more removed from the usual flow of the game.
"When I came up, you could look down almost any roster and find four or five guys who might fill that tough-guy role," he said. "The era before mine, in the 1970s and 1980s, you might have half the roster who would do that. Now maybe a team has two guys, but usually it's one. Or none."
Boogaard scored one goal for the Rangers, his first in 235 NHL games. He was a healthy scratch eight times last season and never played more than 7:15 in the games in which he was in uniform.
He also was one of the most feared and respected fighters in the game, so his invitations to fight were routinely turned down. If he wasn't able to do his job in the two to eight minutes Rangers coach John Tortorella would give him, then Tortorella couldn't justify putting Boogaard in the lineup.
"You have to try and really focus on doing what you do well," Kypreos said. "For Derek and guys like him, I would think that was checking the schedule, knowing who you'd have to fight next, knowing their tendencies. He wasn't sitting around talking about how to score goals with his teammates. There aren't a lot of people you can talk to."
"It's the thing I see missing most from some of the young tough guys I talk to -- having someone to relate to them," said Dr. Adam Naylor, director of Boston University's Athletic Enhancement Center and a sports psychologist who has worked with dozens of college and minor-league hockey players. "These are 20-year-old guys who are loved for their exploits, but they're not always viewed as 'real' hockey players. It can be hard to get those emotions in check."
It's why enforcers, in addition to being popular among teammates for being able to talk about more than just the game, are popular with one another in their small field.
"Even if you just had a fight with a guy, you'd be likely to chat with him after a game," said Dale Purinton, a Rangers enforcer from 1999-2004. "We all knew each other and respected each other, because you know this is your job. It was almost never personal."
Purinton made $575,000 in 2003-04, his last season of four in the NHL with the Rangers. Boogaard's contract made him the highest-paid enforcer in the game, but that doesn't mean there was much job security.
"If you're making $800,000 or one million, you feel like you've got to fight every night and win every fight," Purinton said, "because there's a guy making $50,000 in the minors waiting to take your job. We all know it, because that's how we got to the NHL."
Worth fighting for?
Boogaard suffered a concussion Dec. 9 after landing on his head during a fight with the Senators' Matt Carkner. He wasn't able to skate for months while his teammates went on with their season. Coupled with it being his first year in a new city, even the most outgoing, most socially adept player would have trouble coping.
"We forget sometimes that these are young men out on their own," Naylor said. "When you factor in concussions and the attendant depression that we know can be a symptom, it becomes an even harder grind when a player, any player, misses time."
With increased attention paid to the effects of multiple concussions, fighters again are in the spotlight. Head trauma from fighting is nothing new. Researchers at Boston University's Sports Legacy Institute found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of Reggie Fleming, who was an enforcer in the 1960s and early 1970s for the Rangers and others. CTE has been found in the brains of deceased football players and is a result of concussions; it has been linked to depression and other serious mental-health problems.
The researchers also found CTE in the brain of Bob Probert, a popular enforcer whose 15-year career with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks spanned 935 games and 3,300 penalty minutes. Probert died of heart failure last June at age 45 after long battles with substance abuse.
A spokesman for Boston University said this past week that Boogaard's family had donated his brain for research.
"Part of making it to the NHL is making smart decisions, knowing when to fight, how far to take it before you get labeled a thug," Naylor said. "You have to try and make smart short-term decisions -- do I fight again after I just fought once or twice the night before? -- so that you can have the career you want, not just a couple great nights in a small town."
There are rewards for putting "your heart, your head and your face on the line every night," as former Rangers and Islanders defenseman and enforcer Eric Cairns put it.
"You feel very much a part of the team when you stand up for someone," said Cairns, now the Islanders' director of player development. "There's that feeling of being a protector."