The Boogeyman Drops the Gloves
They talk about the Boogeyman as if he were another species. At six-foot, seven-inches tall—add three inches in skates—the Wild left winger stands a head above most NHL players (one writer describes him as "yeti-like"). Weighing 250 pounds, he has a gorilla's arms and hands the size of concrete blocks. They're always thrown with bad intentions.
But when Derek "the Boogeyman" Boogaard arrives to meet the press, he almost looks like a model out of GQ. Wire-rim spectacles perch upon an improbably straight nose. His chiseled chin rests on battle-scarred knuckles. The Boogeyman has assumed the pose of The Thinker. He is in a thoughtful mood.
"I've been dating her since November," the Boogeyman says, his voice so soothing he could have a second career in hypnotherapy. "We met through a good friend and it just took off from there." He's talking about his girlfriend, Erin. Wild fans know about her because she has a MySpace page, which turned up in a chat room after another woman expressed a desire to marry the Boogeyman. The Boogeyman has a MySpace page, too, which he mostly uses to send cutesy messages to Erin. "Just stupid little things. Inside jokes that we have."
The Boogeyman has been scratched today, due to a nagging back injury. He's watching the game on TV out of one corner of his eye, helping the team in the only way he can right now: publicity.
He hates not being able to play. There's nothing that makes the Boogeyman happier than fighting for his team. Before Christmas, when he was out for a month, his teammate Pavol Demitra suffered a concussion from a nasty hit. The Boogeyman couldn't help but feel responsible. If he'd been playing, no one would have dared.
It's March 11—44 days since the Boogeyman's last fight—and he's starting to get the itch.
Fighting has been part of the National Hockey League since its inception in 1917. The sport has always valued toughness as much as finesse.
NHL rule makers have traditionally taken a forgiving approach to fighting. Where other sports suspend players and fine them, hockey delivers a mere five-minute penalty. Sometimes a player will fight twice in the same game.
By the 1970s, fighting had woven itself so thoroughly into the NHL's DNA that it was part of any winning gameplan. Philadelphia's Broadstreet Bullies didn't play so much as pillage, laying waste to other teams' rosters. Two Stanley cups were their reward.
To counteract that strategy, teams began employing players sheerly to serve as body guards for the smaller, more nimble goalscorers. Known by many names—goon, tough guy, enforcer—they were required to police the ice.
Apologists argue that fighting is a safer release for aggression than the alternative: high stick work that can crack a rib or slice up a guy's face. Plus, fans like fights. A good scrap is as likely to make the highlight reel as a goal.
"Sometimes it's to light a spark, other times it's to defend a teammate," says David Singer, whose website, Hockeyfights.com, has gone from a labor of love to something players name-check in post-game interviews. "It's usually pretty fast, usually nobody's hurt, and the game is brought up to a different level afterwards."
In recent weeks, though, several ugly incidents have cast a harsh spotlight on hockey fighting. Earlier this month, the NHL levied the third-longest suspension in its history—25 games—against New York Islanders winger Chris Simon for his two-handed stick swing at New York Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg. And on March 21, Todd Fedoruk got cold-cocked by the Rangers' Colton Orr and had to leave the ice on a stretcher.
"I'm not afraid to talk about the fact that we should look at fighting in hockey," NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell told the news agency Canadian Press last week. "I think you have to ask the question because of what's happening out there. It's incumbent on me, because of my position, to ask the question.
"I think if you had discussed this even three or four years ago, you would have got pooh-poohed out of the game. But now I think because of the size of our players, where we're at in sports and in life, I think we have to look at it."
Which is why the Boogeyman may be the NHL's worst nightmare.
"And now we got a fight at center ice!" the announcer says. "The guys we've waited all night for: Boogaard and Goddard!"
It's January 9, and the Wild are playing in Calgary. The Boogeyman has just dropped the gloves—the opening bell of any good hockey fight—with Eric Goddard. The Boogeyman is about to lose. Badly.
Goddard catches him behind the ear and the Boogeyman drops to one knee. He stands up, only to be knocked down by a blow to the temple.
"Wow! The fans are standing at the Pengrowth Saddledome for Eric Goddard!" the announcer shouts.
"You don't see that happen very often," says the color commentator. "Boogaard was a little dazed. He was going to the wrong penalty box."
"How about that?"
"And Derek Boogaard is going for attention."
"Off the ice he goes."
The Boogeyman takes the long walk of a defeated man. Somewhere, his family is watching, wondering whether he's all right.
Back in the locker room, the Boogeyman uses his punch-sore fingers to type a text message to his 22-year-old brother, Ryan: "HOW THE HELL DID HE GET HIS RIGHT FREE?"
Ryan is his brother's keeper. He checks out the Boogeyman's opponents on YouTube before each game and gives Derek a scouting report.
"There's quite a few tendencies you can look for," Ryan explains. "Whether they're a lefty or a righty, whether they can switch up if they get in trouble, whether they throw a lot of punches without a lot of power behind them."
The Boogeyman learned how to fight early on. His father's job as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer meant his family would pull up stakes and move every four or five years, skipping through northern hamlets like Saskatoon, Stroud, and Herbert. Always the new kid, Derek also had his father's job in law enforcement working against him.
"That was inevitable, because here I am the cop in town," says Len Boogaard, the Boogeyman's 52-year-old father. "If I gave somebody a ticket, it would invariably be taken out on the kids."
Young Derek channeled his aggression onto the ice. At times, the other parents wondered whether the man-child was fully in control of his prodigious physical gifts.
"He was gangly, he was gawky, he was very awkward at skating, and he was aggressive. And that didn't sit well with the parents," Len says.
By age 15, the Boogeyman was ready to hang up his skates. He was tired of being treated like a circus sideshow, laughed at and jeered for his clumsiness.
But Floyd Halcro, a family friend who coached youth hockey, interceded. "Come play for me," Halcro told him. "It'll be fun."
That summer, the Boogeyman hit his growth spurt, sprouting 10 inches in a matter of months. "I remember my parents talking about spending like $200 to $300 a week on groceries alone," the Boogeyman says. "That's insane."
Derek's increased size made him a big target. Other teams would send out two tough guys to bait him into a fight just to get him out of the game. "Then their other guy could beat the shit out of our smaller guys," Halcro says.
The extra girth also brought complaints from rival teams. It got so bad that one referee had to skate over to the other bench and say, "I can't give him a penalty for being six-foot-four."
The Boogeyman speaks about his first big scrap in the awed tones of a man discussing his epiphany: "I just got pissed off, really mad about something. And I just fought and fought—fought one kid, fought another kid. I don't know how it happened, but I was in their bench asking the whole team to fight."
That was the day the Boogeyman was discovered. Todd Ripplinger, the director of scouting for the Western Hockey League's Regina Pats, was in the stands. The Pats were in the market for an enforcer, and Ripplinger was impressed with the enthusiasm Boogaard brought to his work.
"It took both linesmen to drag him off the ice!" Ripplinger recalls, some eight years later.
The Boogeyman, a hulking 16-year-old, knew exactly what he'd been brought in to do. On his first shift in Regina, he dropped the gloves with the team's top heavyweight and beat him.
There was a new tough guy in town, complete with a new nickname.
"During the year, we called him the Boogeyman," Ripplinger says. "I guess it stuck."
The Boogeyman streaks at his target like a heat-seeking missile. But then the other player somehow manages to slip out of the way. The Boogeyman slams the glass, shatters it, then continues his trajectory like a passenger ejected through the windshield.
"Oh my God!" a man screams
"Holy shit!" says another.
The Boogeyman gathers himself, dusts glass shards off his uniform, and looks up at the camera. Although his face is cast in shadows, if you squint, you'd swear he was smiling.
It's September 2001, and the Boogeyman is playing in Traverse City, Michigan, in a tournament for NHL prospects. At 18 years old, he's just earned his first ESPN highlight—though not in the way he'd hoped.
After a short stint, the Pats had traded the Boogeyman to the Prince George Cougars, where he was embraced like a long-lost relative.
"Boogey was Prince George's type of guy," says Ed Dempsey, then the head coach. "It's a rough-and-tumble logging town, and they really take to guys like Derek."
Life in the Western Hockey League—the first rung of the minor leagues—was like the Wild West. The team's coaches sent in the Boogeyman to administer his bare-knuckled justice every night, it seemed.
"These last few years my hand's been really good. But before when I was having 30, 40 fights a year, it was pretty swollen and sore," the Boogeyman says, contemplating a fist that's been broken so many times that several knuckles have disappeared beneath a layer of scar tissue. "It was pretty painful at night, but I don't regret it."
The Boogeyman took his share of beatings. After one fight, his opponent ripped the name off Boogaard's jersey and tossed it to the crowd, like a matador circling the ring with an ear at a bullfight.
Another kid cut short the Boogeyman's rookie season by breaking his jaw. "That sucked," the Boogeyman says, stroking his mandible. "I don't think you'd wish that on anybody."
But the Boogeyman didn't let it discourage him from his profession. After his jaw healed, he skated up to the kid and asked, "You wanna go?"
The challenge was keeping his cool. On April 9, 2001, after the buzzer sounded in the Cougars' losing effort to the Portland Winter Hawks, the Boogeyman ran over the opposing goalie—a cardinal sin in hockey. Making matters worse, the net minder had bent down to pick up the puck as a souvenir of his first playoff victory.
The WHL brought swift punishment, suspending the Boogeyman for seven games to be served the following season. But the time off did little to quell the Boogeyman's fury. His second game back, he again lost control, manhandling a linesman and flipping off a referee.
The league suspended him for four more games, and summoned him to a disciplinary meeting to deliver a message: Clean up your act, or your pro career will be over before it has a chance to begin.
Soon after, the Boogeyman learned he'd been traded to the Medicine Hat Tigers. As he waited to board his flight, the Boogeyman gave an interview to a reporter from the Prince George Citizen. When asked what it would be like to play his old teammates, the Boogeyman pulled no punches.
"There's a few guys I'll look for," he said. "I won't tell you who. I'll keep the guys in suspense."
The Minnesota Wild drafted the Boogeyman in the seventh round of the 2001 NHL entry draft, making him the 202nd overall pick.
"He was a huge guy that appeared to be just getting his coordination," says Tom Thompson, the Wild assistant general manager in charge of the draft. "It's more like an enhanced basketball build than what you'd see in hockey."
But being drafted didn't necessarily mean that the Boogeyman would ever see the ice in the NHL. Teams often have to pick three enforcers to get one who pans out, Thompson says. "You didn't misjudge what you see on the ice. They just don't have the personality to adjust to this."
After self-combusting in Prince George, the Boogeyman wasn't looking like a good bet. So Barry MacKenzie, the Wild's director of player development, paid a visit to Medicine Hat.
On his first night in town, MacKenzie asked, "Where do you want to go to supper?"
"Earl's," the Boogeyman said, referring to a nice restaurant in town.
The next day, MacKenzie watched the Boogeyman in practice. He was listless.
"Derek, if I was coaching, I would have kicked you off the ice in 10 minutes," MacKenzie said. "Your concept of working and mine are totally opposite."
That night, MacKenzie took the Boogeyman to McDonald's. In case his meaning wasn't clear, MacKenzie spelled it out: "If your work ethic doesn't change, you're not going to have enough money to go to Earl's."
The Boogeyman, now 21, arrived in Houston ready to work. Playing for the Aeros, the Wild's minor league affiliate in the AHL, would bring no glory to the Boogeyman. More often than not, the cavernous Toyota Center was a sea of empty seats, a few thousand fans in a 17,800-capacity arena.
"If you can't skate and you can't make plays, you're not going on the ice for Coach Jacques Lemaire," says Cam Stewart, an Aeros assistant coach. "I don't care if you're King Kong."
Boogaard had a long way to go. Stewart remembers the day when he noticed that the Boogeyman's skates were chewed up like a dog's toy.
"Boogey, what's wrong with your skates?"
"Oh, I don't sharpen them," the Boogeyman answered matter-of-factly. "I think I've only sharpened them once all year."
That day after practice, Stewart taught the Boogeyman how to sharpen his skates and lace them up properly.
Skating wasn't the only skill he practiced. The Wild arranged for the Boogeyman to train with former professional boxer Scott LeDoux in Minneapolis. LeDoux knew that a hockey fight isn't the same as going ten rounds in the ring. Still, the sweet science had something to offer the Boogeyman.
"I taught him how to turn the shoulders and square up when he started fighting on the ice," LeDoux says. "Turn your upper torso and just fire down the chute, right down the middle, left-right, left-right."
Jacques Lemaire, the Wild's head coach, remembers seeing the Boogeyman on the ice in Houston. "I thought he wouldn't play," Lemaire recalls. "We were close to sending him down."
But when the Boogeyman showed up the next year at the Wild's training camp, he had improved considerably.
"He works hard," Lemaire says. "He's the most disciplined tough player I've ever coached."
"Here we go! Gillies mixing it up with Boogaard," the announcer says. "And they drop the mitts!"
It's November 6, 2005, and the Boogeyman is fighting Anaheim's Trevor Gillies. Spinning on the ice like figure skaters, the two clutch each other's jerseys and fire rapid right crosses. The Boogeyman lands an uppercut that staggers Gillies, then rears back and throws the knockout punch.
Gillies collapses like a marionette with its strings cut. In the slow-motion replay, the Boogeyman can be seen skating away before Gillies hits the ice.
"Wow, that was a shot by Boogaard," the Anaheim announcer says. "And you know what? I'll give Boogaard credit, because he knew he had hurt Gillies, and he immediately stopped and got away from him."
As his rookie NHL season progressed, the Boogeyman tangled with some of the league's most established enforcers—Donald Brashear and Georges Laraque among them—racking up 158 penalty minutes.
That summer, the Wild signed him to a $525,000, one-year contract.
This season, the Boogeyman came out fighting. He pummeled Columbus's Jody Shelly, Los Angeles's Raitis Ivanans, and Anaheim's Shane O'Brien.
Then, in the next period of the Anaheim game, the Boogeyman fought Todd Fedoruk in a battle that would permanently change both combatants.
No one can say Fedoruk didn't ask for it. He chased the Boogeyman and grabbed the tail of his jersey. After the whistle, Fedoruk ran Boogaard into the boards.
"Here he goes after him now, and we'll see if Boogaard takes him on it," the announcer says, in a YouTube clip of the fight.
"Why wouldn't he?" the color commentator asks.
The Boogeyman grabs the sweater and joins the fight. Fedoruk stumbles. The Boogeyman works the left, then unleashes a hard right hand.
Fedoruk goes weightless, reaching for his face to hold his eyeball in. After he leaves the game, an ambulance takes him to the hospital. Surgeons insert titanium plates to fix his shattered orbital socket.
Many fight fans point to that punch as the moment the Boogeyman truly arrived.
"Anytime where over the next month they're gonna say, 'He broke someone's face,' that's gonna get you somewhere," says Hockeyfights.com's Singer.
Because of the injury, Fedoruk tried to protect his face in his fight with Orr. That opened him up for the knockout punch that left him prone on the ice. Now commentators are saying that Fedoruk shouldn't fight anymore because he's too vulnerable to being knocked out. But what's an enforcer to do if he can't drop the gloves?
"It's unfortunate what happened, but what if I was in that situation?" the Boogeyman says when asked about breaking Fedoruk's face. "Would he let up on a punch? Not a chance."
To succeed in the modern NHL, the Boogeyman has to pick his spots carefully. Choked by a salary cap, teams have fewer roster slots for pure tough guys.
"The position is evolving," says Ross Bernstein, the Eagan-based author of The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL. "The goon is gone."
So the Boogeyman has found a way to contribute without dropping his gloves. Take the Wild's March 1 game against the Edmonton Oilers. In just five and a half minutes on the ice, the Boogeyman sparked two melees that resulted in 20 minutes of penalites for the Oilers, putting his team on the power play.
"He's been drawing a lot of penalties, and we score some goals from that," says Wild right wing Marian Gaborik.
It's March 22—55 long days since the Boogeyman's last fight—but all that's about to change in front of 15,568 fans at the Xcel Energy Center.
In the first period, Blues center Doug Weight crushes the Boogeyman against the boards and shoves off him for good measure. Both players earn two-minute penalties, but the Boogeyman keeps his gloves on.
When Weight comes back from the penalty box, he scores a goal on the Wild. This is an insult that the Boogeyman will not bear.
God intervenes. With 16 minutes remaining in the game, Weight catches the puck with his face—an injury that sends him to the bench with a mouthful of blood.
As Weight limps off the ice, the Boogeyman taunts, "How's your mouth?"
The Wild are up 4-1, and menace hangs in the air. The next faceoff, the Boogeyman lines up opposite Blues left wing D.J. King.
The Boogeyman hesitates. He looks to Coach Lemaire for approval. Getting it, the Boogeyman drops the gloves.
Three quick jabs knock King's helmet off. Uppercut! King shakes off an elbow pad. They tie up. The Boogeyman gets loose and throws bombs. Uppercut! Kidney shot! The Boogeyman is tenderizing King like a cheap piece of meat.
"King wanted this," the color commentator says. "And right now Boogaard is taking it to him."
"King is just hanging on, Mike," the other announcer says. "He just wants this to be over."
"Well, it's gonna be over, and it's gonna be over in a bad way for him."
"Time to go down, son."
The zebras have the same idea. They skate in and break up a fight that has lasted over a minute—a marathon by hockey standards.
"I'll tell you right now, all the bench from the Wild start yelling, 'Go! Go! Go!,'" the announcer says. "They wanted to see Boogaard take care of business, and he certainly does that."
After the game, Blues head coach Andy Murray insinuates that Boogaard is a talentless goon.
"I wish they'd play Boogaard more," he tells the press. "Tell Derek I'm a fan of his."
In the Wild locker room, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch relates what Murray said.
"I can't play hockey at all?" the Boogeyman says, incredulous. "I can't play? That's his opinion, I guess. Our coaches have other opinions. That's why I'm here."
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