Boogaard's dark story points to a painkiller problem in the NHL

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An easy availability of painkillers and sleeping pills fed Derek Boogaard's addiction and eventually turned the troubled enforcer into a zombie during his time with the Wild and Rangers. (Photo by Matt Slocum/AP)


By Stu Hackel

The three-part New York Times series (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) on the life and death of Derek Boogaard certainly sent shock waves around the hockey world and renewed calls from some for fighting to be banned. This series has resonated beyond the sport, as evidenced by the fact that as of Wednesday afternoon, Tuesday's third installment remained the fourth most-emailed story among all Times articles.

While fighting and the culture around it in hockey draw a massive amount of attention, the issue of painkiller addiction in the NHL is another hugely significant part of Boogaard's story -- a story he shares with a good number of other players. That addiction deserves equal focus, and perhaps even more.

We don't want to diminish the alarming presence of the degenerative neurological disease CTE in Boogaard's brain that might have been the result of concussions caused by fighting. But despite demands that the league toughen its rules on fighting, that part of the game doesn't seem likely to change in the near term. However, painkiller addiction isn't something defended by traditionalists and its victims are likely a wider circle than are the frequent fighters. Considering how contentious the fighting issue is, the painkiller problem may be more immediately fixable.

In late Summer, when Boogaard's struggle with addiction became known, we looked at the painkiller problem in hockey, and you might want to go back and read it if you missed it the first time. Unfortunately, the very next day, the airplane carrying members of the KHL Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club perished in a crash, and our attention shifted there.

“Today the biggest problem, which isn’t talked about…is pills. It’s painkillers,” former Flyer Ian Laperrière said back in September over CKAC Radio (audio), the French language all-sports station in Montreal.

Asked by host Michel Langevin how many players might be taking painkillers on any given team, whether or not they really need them, Laperrière responded, “The teams that I’ve played on, I would say four or five guys per team, and those are the ones I saw.”

“[Painkillers] are appropriate for those who need them,” he said. “If I just had an operation, I may take my pills for two days, but the doctor gives me pills for twelve days. There are pills left over.”

He added, “There is also a huge, huge problem when guys take them with alcohol. At night, they’ll go out to a bar, have a drink or two. People thought, ‘He died of painkillers, okay, he died.’ But no one talked about it….I think it’s a huge problem that we didn’t talk about it.”

It was that mix of alcohol and Oxycodone that killed Boogaard in May.

Besides Laperrière, we quoted other players who discussed the painkiller problem, including ex-NHLers Brantt Myhres and Denis Gauthier who told The Globe and Mail that using painkillers is especially a problem among fighters.

Former NHL enforcer Riley Cote, who is now a minor league coach, was also outspoken in print and on radio in Montreal about the prevalence of painkillers in pro hockey. Former minor pro Justin Bourne wrote a post on Yahoo's Puck Daddy blog about the widespread use of painkillers from first hand experience, and it's not just among players who were the fighters.

Now that Boogaard's horrifying addiction has been more fully chronicled by John Branch in The Times, the time is right to look at it again.

In response to Boogaard's death, both the NHL and NHLPA began working toward a new policy on the usage and availability of painkillers. The subject was discussed with players at the NHLPA Executive Board meetings over the summer and at regional meetings. It was also a main topic on the PA's fall tour. Additionally, these matters were part of the NHL-NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program doctors tour of all 30 teams.

All of these efforts stressed to the players, among other things, that they should use only the drugs prescribed by their doctor and should not share them with other players. The dangers of mixing them with alcohol were also explained.

Unfortunately this all came too late to help Boogaard who, Branch reports, was a binge beer drinker before turning pro and began taking Ambien while in minor league hockey. Ambien is a prescription sleeping pill that "has long been doled out in training rooms to players struggling to cope with chronic aches and the demands of the schedule," Branch writes.

Branch quotes former Islander and longtime minor pro enforcer Mitch Fritz as saying that Ambien is used rather openly on some teams, with players offering extras they might have to their teammates. Fritz adds, “Obviously, I’ve used painkillers, with injuries and stuff. Get your shoulder rebuilt, get your knee scoped. It’s hard to go out that next night and fight that world-class guy with broken knuckles. I’ve gotten into the drugs. Not going to lie. I’m sure people think, ‘Oh, he’s making $1.5 million, how bad can it be?’ But they’ve never been in his shoes.”

In Boogaard's case, his massive size meant he needed extra doses of painkillers to do the trick. "He’d go through 30 pills in a couple of days," his brother Aaron told Branch. "He’d need 8 to 10 at a time to feel O.K.”

John Scott, another huge player and teammate of Boogaard’s on the Minnesota Wild, now plays for the Blackhawks. Scott described his reaction after being prescribed oxycodone after nose and knee operations. “It just dulls you right out,” he said. “Totally numbs everything. You don’t feel anything. You’re in no pain, but you’re not yourself. There’s no senses. Nothing. My wife was like: ‘This is creeping me out, man. You’ve got to stop taking those.’ And so I stopped.”

Those personality changes overtook Boogaard as well. “His demeanor, his personality, it just left him,” Scott said. “He didn’t have a personality anymore. He just was kind of — a blank face.”

Boogaard fell asleep while playing cards on the team plane, a teammate told Branch, adding that he also passed out in corners of the team’s dressing room, and was uncharacteristically late for meetings and workouts. The hard-working approach to the game that helped him rise from the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL evaporated, his effort level leaving his coaches concerned. "Wild trainers and doctors warned Boogaard’s teammates not to give him their prescription pills," Branch wrote.

But there was still ample opportunity for Boogaard to get drugs. He would buy them on the black market from people he knew in the Minneapolis night life scene. When he lived in New York City after signing with the Rangers, he would drive to Long Island on Sunday nights and buy thousands of dollars worth of pills in Ziploc bags from a man in a parking lot.

But most disturbingly, Boogaard could get them though legal channels, Branch alleges. "Most N.H.L. teams have about 10 affiliated doctors — specialists and dentists with practices of their own," he reports. "Boogaard had learned that there was no system to track who was prescribing what.

"In one three-month stretch of the 2008-09 season with the Wild, Boogaard received at least 11 prescriptions for painkillers from eight doctors — including at least one doctor for a different team, according to records gathered by his father, Len Boogaard. Combined, the prescriptions were for 370 tablets of painkillers containing hydrocodone, typically sold under brand names like Vicodin.

"Derek Boogaard increasingly wanted more pills. He became adept at getting them," Branch writes.

The increased use of pills could make Boogaard disoriented, especially when he mixed painkillers and alcohol, the combination that eventually killed him. He once drove around Minneapolis in that state until he was stopped by a policeman who happened to know him. Boogaard slept it off on the cop's couch. A few days later, Boogaard's fiancée told Branch, he took four Ambiens. “I was scared,” Erin Russell said. “I had never seen him that drugged up — falling all over the place and running into walls.”

Not long afterward, Boogaard entered the NHL-NHLPA Substance Abuse Program, the first of two such stays in California. Branch writes that Boogaard knew when he would be screened for drugs four days prior to the tests, and added that his participation in the program's meetings was spotty during his second tenure last spring. Boogaard was able to drop pills off at his Minneapolis apartment and drink while he was on recess from the program.

Branch was not able to get comments from those involved in running the program in Boogaard's case. Nor did he get comments from the Rangers, the Wild or their doctors.

Apart from the educational steps taken by the NHLPA, it is unclear at the moment what additional things the league and players association might be doing  to tighten the tracking process of team doctors prescribing drugs or strengthening the SABH program. They have not yet responded to our inquiries on this question.

The program has had numerous successes with players who faced a wide variety of issues relating to drugs, alcohol, and emotional and family problems. Boogaard was not one of them. If the painkiller problem is a widespread as we suspect, let's hope the NHL and NHLPA have taken and are taking steps to prevent others from walking down his troubled path.