I finally brought myself to check out the Derek Boogaard piece in the New York Times, which was masterfully done by John Branch. I didn't so much as read it, but I watched the three-part video offering- equal parts sad and haunting, and had other people I know tell me that the written word conveyed the same emotions.
What an utterly tragic story this has become.
I remember standing in my garage, beer buzz in my head and cigar in my hand, along with my best friend, both of our lips quivering as our heart strings were being plucked during the recent Derek Boogaard tribute night at the Xcel Energy Center. Both of us were left speechless and saddened; I can only imagine feeling being there in person. Can you blame Niklas Backstrom for a miserable performance that night? Its just awful.
After I watched the NYT piece, I began to feel a bit ashamed for what I had done as a Wild fan- under the guise of rooting on "The Boogey Man" clobber another nameless and interchangeable fighter, we were rooting for what essentially was his path to self-destruction. The cult status got bigger, the injuries got worse, the need to medicate and cope got bigger than the jersey sales, the bellowing chants, and the youtube hits of Boogaard caving in Todd Fedoruk's face. Boogaard's story, as tragic as it was, has opened eyes to the role of designated fighter, and fighting in general in the game. It also allowed guys who once filled that role, and still do, to discuss what they go through.
Its created dialogue.
See, hockey is unique in the sense that there is an underlying correlation to society. With the advent of fighting, and the "self-policing" of the game, players were kept to a modicum of honesty- you do something that warranted punishment, you were generally dealt with; its "The Code", that intangible but universally understood logic of action and reaction. You run my star player, you deal with the consequences. There was this system of checks and balances- akin to a citizen's arrest for example, or someone getting a black eye for insulting someone's mother. I'm not saying it was all hippie commune out there, but the onus was on the players, not on the referees or off-ice officials.
There are costs, and in the instance Derek Boogaard, it was his life. Now at every level of hockey where fighting is allowed (and encouraged to some degree,) there are assessments as to the validity of dropping the gloves and throwin em'. But where I think where thinks go a bit awry is that people hear about Boogaard, and Bob Probert, and Wade Belak and their on-ice roles as it coincides with the fighting debate. The reality is that these guys were a dying breed, and Boogaard may just be the last; someone you will point to as the last of the dinosaurs.
The game is constantly evolving, which at one point necessitated the need for "The A Bombs"; the hired muscle, the protector, the Sheriff, the goon. The Proberts, The Boogaards. The gong show atmospheres encouraged that; the staged fights, the anticipated throwdowns between the heavyweights, a side show act to the actual game itself.
Things change; the lockout in 2004 and the changes to game play encouraged speed, yet players continue to get bigger and stronger and more skilled. In a way, the lockout signaled the end of "the goon." At a certain point, a decision is made in terms of personnel where it just doesn't make sense to carry a roster player with a limited skill set in favor of someone who can put the puck in the net. You're seeing this reflect on the rosters today; teams just don't carry a straight up enforcer anymore, unless the player can actually play competently.
The fighting debate will continue to rage on; I, for one, believe there is a time and a place for it during the game; however, I don't want the death of Derek Boogaard to become some sort of watershed moment for the anti-fighting pundits- that this is cause for a knee-jerk reaction. That in essence would be making him a martyr for the cause; using a tragedy for one's gain in a war of viewpoints. The players in the NHL now the risks that come with playing the game.
The Ballad of Derek Boogaard should be about knowledge- about CTE, about substance abuse, about how athletes cope with pain and their public persona, and how the dynamic nature of the game of hockey may not need change forced upon it, but that it may just change itself.