'Boy on Ice' will challenge your stance on fighting in hockey

John Branch's poignant telling of Derek Boogaard's story should be on every hockey fan's reading list.

The first time Medicine Hat Tigers coach Willie Desjardins (now coach of the Vancouver Canucks) met Derek Boogaard in 2002, he found him a "surprisingly meek soul" and "wondered if he was nasty enough to do his job." He soon found out the answer to that question.

Off the ice, Boogaard was a gentle, soft-spoken man, who was more interested in hearing about others than he was talking about himself. On it, he was a feared enforcer, often referred to as the toughest player in the NHL and capable of ending careers with a single punch. His own ended at the age of 28. An accidental overdose, succumbing to vices to help him bear the pain of wearing many masks.

In 'Boy On Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard', New York Times journalist John Branch weaves an emotional tale of the late pugilist, recounting his battles with injury and drug abuse, as well as the decisions early in life that led him to choose (or be forced to choose) the path he did. He never would have played in the NHL (or juniors, for that matter) were it not for his fists. The book is a continuation of a story originally published in the Times, along with a 30-minute documentary online. (If you haven't watched it, make time to do so.)

The reader walks in Boogaard's shoes as he transforms from an oversized and misunderstood kid, to a Minnesota Wild draft pick. They're there through the workouts, and as the first scouts notice him during a heated bantam tournament brawl. They spend time as he toils in juniors and the minor leagues, and all the fights in between. More than that, Branch projects Boogaard's quiet but loving personality from the first page, through exchanges with his family or teammates and Boogaard's own, misspelled writings. He becomes more than just the subject of a book, but someone the reader grows with.

It makes it that much more heartbreaking to see how every punch leads him closer and closer to his ultimate demise. By the time he signs with the New York Rangers, Boogaard is a different person, who needs to gobble handfuls of painkillers to function.

Since Branch makes his living as a reporter, he uses facts and research to tell the story and doesn't explicitly lean to one side of the fighting debate or the other. He introduces the history of the enforcer and how it's evolved through the years. Through interviews with previous players, coaches and tough guys, he explains how they're the ones to protect the team, intimidate the opposition, and be the heart and soul in the locker room. Very similar to the stance Stu Grimson (mentioned in the book) took a few weeks ago.

But that comes crashing down as the reader gets a glimpse of the physical and emotional toll the role takes on Boogaard. Nights would be spent sleepless as he prepared for the next day's bout. (That led to the Ambien.) Injuries would be hidden, for fear of looking weak in the eyes of his teammates or fans, or getting replaced by someone else. (That led to scores of painkillers.) All the while his parents wanted him to stop fighting to save his mutilated hands. The head was an afterthought. As we now know, Boogaard's brain had taken so much damage he likely would have never had a normal life after hockey.

"[Boogaard] was not good enough to do it with his stick or his skates, but there was a role for him and his fists, if he was willing to dutifully distribute punishment and quietly absorb pain." -John Branch

What's almost scarier is how uncoordinated NHL team doctors were and how the issues were handled. At one point Boogaard could be prescribed over 100 pills by six or seven different over the course of a couple of weeks. Despite failing or avoiding several drug tests (ground for an automatic suspension under his previous rehab's probation), it took months for anyone to take action. It's appalling how little regard for player well-being at the time is exposed in this book.

It isn't without its flaws. Facts and names are introduced repeatedly, as if Branch doesn't trust the reader to remember who was in the previous chapters. This happens most frequently with Todd Fedoruk, who makes multiple appearances in Boogaard's life and career (and every time we're reminded who he is), but is noticeable throughout the book.

Most glaring are how (especially toward the end, when Boogaard is in the thralls of his addiction) paragraphs shift from beautiful prose to robotic reporting without warning. It's not uncommon to be jarred out from a personal moment with string of paragraphs that start, "On Monday... On Tuesday... On Wednesday..." and do nothing but list exact numbers of perspiration pills prescribed, ATM and credit card transactions, and exact numbers of text messages sent/received with time stamps. It's incredibly detailed, but there are only certain times when it's relevant.

Those are minor quibbles in an otherwise compelling read. The 10-page prologue alone will have any hockey fan hooked. It's a must for anyone wanting to get educated on the issue, or just wants a peek into the world of enforcers.

Branch's reporting may or may not sway your views on the fighting debate. However, the visceral retelling of fight after fight, along with the shocking glimpse into Boogaard's somber dissent succeeds in making you take a step back to look at what players put themselves through just to belong. While Boogaard's tale is one of an enforcer (a dying breed) there are still those willing to abandon all regard for personal safety in exchange for a few minutes in the NHL. Maybe someday they won't have to.