On the fourth anniversary of enforcer Derek Boogaard’s death, we present this column, which later appeared on SI.com on June 18, 2012, about the troubling issue the tragedy raised.
The horror that was Derek Boogaard’s painkiller addiction came into shaper focus earlier this month when John Branch of The New York Times followed up his stunning three-part exposé from last fall (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) with a story focusing on how easily the late Rangers enforcer was able to obtain prescription drugs. Branch’s latest piece was published the same day as Game 3 of the Kings-Devils Stanley Cup Final and, even though it was on The Times’ front page, it perhaps got less attention than it deserved in hockey circles.
UPDATE: Branch's book, Boy on Ice, about Boogard’s death was awarded the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing on May 13, 2015.
Much of the reaction surrounding Branch's original story about Boogaard was focused on fighting in the NHL and it raised the volume of those who oppose it. But the league has no plans to alter its position and the players continue to voice a nearly unanimous sentiment for keeping fighting in the game. However, painkiller addiction isn’t something that is defended by traditionalists, and its victims are likely a larger group than frequent fighters. Considering how contentious the fighting issue is, the painkiller problem may be more immediately fixable. Judging by Branch’s most recent piece, there’s a lot to fix. The most jarring aspect is the manner in which Boogaard obtained the various pills that ultimately led to his death, and not just from illicit providers, but from team doctors as well.
Through Len Boogaard, Derek’s father and a retired RCMP officer who clearly has very sharp investigative skills and who uncovered the detailed history of his son’s addictive behavior, Branch reported, among other things, that Derek was able to get multiple doctors to write him prescriptions, including doctors from NHL teams he wasn't a member of at the time. Quite often, Len Boogaard discovered, these prescriptions (and others for flu medications, decongestants, antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills) were written after Derek merely texted the doctors' cellphones and no notation was made of them in the teams’ medical files.
As Branch reported, some of Len Boogaard’s major findings included the following:
• In a six-month stretch from October 2008 to April 2009, Derek received at least 25 prescriptions for the painkillers hydrocodone or oxycodone, a total of 622 pills, from 10 doctors — eight team doctors of the Wild, an oral surgeon in Minneapolis and a doctor for another NHL team.
• In the fall of 2010, an official for the Rangers, Boogaard’s new team, was notified about his recurring abuse of narcotic pain pills. Nonetheless, a Rangers team dentist soon wrote the first of five prescriptions for hydrocodone for Boogaard after he sustained an injury.
• Another Rangers doctor, although aware that Boogaard also had been addicted to sleeping pills in the past, wrote nearly 10 prescriptions for Ambien during the player's lone season with the team.
• At times, these prescriptions for potentially addictive drugs were dispensed with the knowledge of counselors for the NHL's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program who treated Boogaard's addictions.
Dr. Louis Baxter Sr., who is the executive medical director of the Professional Assistance Program of New Jersey and a past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, told Branch, “To see him have all that access to those doctors and all those prescriptions, that is mind-boggling. He had such easy access to prescription medicines.”
Len Boogaard's meticulous compilation of his son's cell phone, bank, credit card, pharmacy, and medical records, as well as discussions with many of those involved, tell an important story, but it's not the whole story.
"The records paint an incomplete picture," Branch wrote. "They do not show what Boogaard told doctors or the degree to which he may have misled them. They do not indicate what the doctors knew, if anything, about Boogaard’s pursuit of drugs bought illicitly on his own. They do not reflect whether the doctors knew what other doctors were diagnosing or prescribing.
"But, at the least, the records raise questions for hockey and professional sports of all kinds. Do team doctors communicate with one another about the care they are giving or the drugs they are prescribing? Do they demand to see a player before writing a new prescription? Are team medical records monitored and complete? How much information is shared among doctors, team officials and administrators of programs like the N.H.L.’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program? Can a hockey player, especially one paid to inflict and to absorb pain, continue a career with an addiction to painkillers? And what role does the league play in all this?"
“Derek was an addict,” Len Boogaard told Branch. “But why was he an addict? Everyone said he had ‘off-ice’ issues. No, it was hockey.”
Branch got little, if any, in the way of enlightening comment from the NHL, the Rangers, the Wild and the doctors who provided Boogaard with the drugs. Those who did comment said they treated him in accordance with the procedures in place. That should surprise no one. There are, obviously, potentially serious legal implications involved. While the individuals involved may have acted as they should have by the book, reading Branch's latest story, it is hard to draw any other conclusion than that the book itself was flawed, that the NHL's practices with regard to dispensing prescription drugs were, at the time of Boogaard's death, slipshod at best.
Last fall, in response to Boogaard’s death, the NHL and NHLPA jointly began working on a new policy on the usage and availability of painkillers. A league spokesman told SI.com on Monday that work on this policy was "ongoing."
Len Boogaard told Branch that he has considered legal action, but didn't think he could afford the financial and time commitment. He cited the eight years that have transpired between Todd Bertuzzi's attack on Steve Moore and the civil trial that is now scheduled for later this year.
The subject of painkiller addiction and the safe use of prescription medication were also discussed with players at the NHLPA Executive Board meetings last summer and at regional gatherings. When the PA conducted its team-by-team tour to address the players last fall, painkiller addiction was also a main topic. Additionally, these matters were raised by the NHL-NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program doctors when they toured all 30 teams early last season.
These are important steps and more are certainly needed. As we noted both last summer and last fall, painkiller addiction is considered by many around the game to be a very serious problem that needs strong attention. This is a rugged game and injuries are a major fact of life for those who play it. Dealing with those injuries, and recovery from surgery that sometimes results, often entail the use of painkillers.
For Boogaard and others, the line between use and abuse can be obliterated much too easily.