Oh what a difference two weeks can make. I had planned for this blog to describe some of the highlights of what has been the most exciting spring of Stanley Cup hockey I can remember. It was going to be an upbeat, feel-good blog if there ever was one. However, fate intervened.
Friday, May 13 was the 34th anniversary of the death of my best friend from law school. He was a victim of cancer at the age of 26. I was discussing this with my son at the Minnesota Twins-Toronto Blue Jays baseball game when our discussion was interrupted by a cell phone call. Derek Boogaard was dead at the age of 28.
The tragedy of the situation is direct and compelling. A son, a brother, a grandson, a relative or close friend, a colorful hockey player, a tireless community and charity worker and a young, powerful athlete who died in the prime of his life.
In the midst of the tragedy, a number of positive aspects from the hockey community prevented the loss from becoming overwhelming. Two days after Derek's death, a number of Minnesota Wild fans organized a public memorial service. The Wild opened the main foyer at the Xcel Energy Center and it was jammed by supporters, a number of whom wore replica jerseys from Derek’s pro and junior teams. Fans, former teammates and members of the Boogaard family spoke in a very moving tribute. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the crowd spontaneously broke into a rendition of Amazing Grace.
The funeral service in Regina, Sask., showed the hockey community truly cared. The New York Rangers brought the bulk of their team members, dressing room staff and other employees. Rangers came from all over North America: Marian Gaborik came from Slovakia; a private jet brought members of the Rangers front office and coaching staff from Palm Springs, Calif., where meetings were being held; another plane brought in Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, members of his front office and a number of players.
Representatives from the NHL’s head office and the NHLPA attended. Players and other personnel from various teams around the league and NHL on-ice officials came, too. Fellow tough guy Jody Shelley attended out of respect for Derek and his family, even though the two enforcers did not know each other personally. The RCMP Chapel, which is the oldest building in the city of Regina, was jam-packed and an equal number of people watched the service by video in the large RCMP drill hall where the reception was held.
Those who spoke at the funeral service did an excellent job of revealing the true Derek Boogaard. Behind the enforcer's image was a real man, one who was a true teammate, friend and benefactor. Personal trainer Jeremy Clark spoke of Derek's character and his dealings with people in the community. Former Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough traced Derek's professional career as an example of how far somebody could progress if given the chance. He also touched on Derek's work in charitable endeavors. Risebrough summarized his feelings about Derek by saying "on the ice, everybody wanted to get away from Derek, but off the ice, everybody wanted to be around him." Brent Burns gave the congregation an intimate look at ‘Boogie’ from the perspective of a long-time teammate and roommate. He recalled when ‘Boogie’ went over to his house to assist his sick wife when Burns was in Europe for the World Championship. Friend and agent Tobin Wright acknowledged many of the people who attended and recalled some of the highlights of Derek's career.
Perhaps the most moving part of the service occurred when the Boogaard family rose to address the congregation. Brother Aaron gave heartfelt thanks to the hockey community for its support. Sister Krysten said that since Derek's passing, many people who knew him well were referring to him as a big teddy bear. She then described the attributes of a teddy bear, concluding that it is soft, loyal and cuddly. There was not a dry eye in the house.
The hockey world will never forget Derek Boogaard. He was the best at his job and a warm human being.
To honor Derek's memory it is incumbent on all of us to become more knowledgeable about painkiller drugs and their potential effects. We must also endeavor to delve into the circumstances that can give rise to their use. Helping others was a fundamental aspect of Derek's life. Now, it is up to all of us to use the circumstances of his death to assist others who may potentially be heading towards a similar fate.
Rest in peace, big guy. You were one of a kind and you enriched all of our lives.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.