OUR OPINION: Blood on the ice, concussions and enlightenmentThe New York Times series isn’t an enjoyable read. But it’s an enlightening one. It’s a vivid depiction of a key component of sports culture — a culture that Americans are recognizing must be changed.
By: Tom Dennis for the Herald, Grand Forks Herald
In years to come, when people analyze the changes that came to regional and national sports, December 2011 might just stand out. And no, it has nothing to do with the pending retirement of the Fighting Sioux nickname at UND.
It has to do with concussions. As scientists learn more about concussions and Americans learn more about their findings, awareness and shock turn into something close to horror. The physical toll of repeated severe concussions (such as those sustained over a youth, college and professional career by some athletes in contact sports) is deeply disturbing.
The findings already have resulted in rule changes and stricter guidelines for letting concussed athletes return to play.
And in hockey, the rules are sure to get tightened even more, thanks to this week’s sobering and disturbing New York Times series, “Punched out: The life and death of a hockey enforcer.”
Hockey fans in Grand Forks and elsewhere should click over to the New York Times’ website and read it. It’s a piece of investigative journalism that’ll be talked about for years to come.
The series profiles Derek Boogaard, a former Minnesota Wild player who died in May of an accidental drug-and-alcohol overdose.
It’s haunting at several levels. The first is its portrayal of the career of a hockey enforcer. “Boogaard had size and determination, but not much else, when the Wild chose him in the seventh round of the 2001 N.H.L. draft,” The Times series reports.
And “not much else” happened over Boogaard’s Wild career to change that view: “Boogaard went nearly five years between National Hockey League goals and scored three times in 277 games.
“He spent 1,411 minutes on the ice and 589 minutes in the penalty box.”
But the scoring numbers didn’t matter because Boogaard wasn’t hired to score. He was hired to fight. “The best way to protect top players from violent onslaughts, teams have long believed, is the threat of more violence, like having a missile in a silo,” the story notes.
So, “teams employ on-ice bruisers, the equivalent of playground bodyguards. Hurt one of us, and we will send out someone bigger, tougher to exact revenge.”
And as an enforcer, Boogaard was one of the best. Part of the series describes his career, including the painkillers that become an enforcer’s friend and the gnarled and scar-tissued hands that are a hallmark of the role.
But it’s the other part of the series that’s likely to change the game. For Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the story reveals.
C.T.E. is "a close relative of Alzheimer's disease," the story reports.
"It is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
“It can be diagnosed only posthumously, but scientists say it shows itself in symptoms like memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, even addiction.
“More than 20 dead former National Football League players and many boxers have had C.T.E. diagnosed. It generally hollowed out the final years of their lives into something unrecognizable to loved ones.
“And now, the fourth hockey player, of four examined, was found to have had it, too.”
Derek Boogaard was 28 years old when he died.
The Times series isn’t an enjoyable read. But it’s an enlightening one. It’s a vivid depiction of a key component of sports culture — a culture that Americans are recognizing must be changed.
— Tom Dennis for the Herald