ST. PAUL, Minn. - Derek Boogaard's relatives and fans shed tears Sunday as they remembered the former NHL tough guy as a "teddy bear" who was as generous and kind as he was burly and tough, a sombre end to a weekend during which his distraught family agreed to donate his brain to medical researchers.
The 28-year-old Boogaard was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment Friday, five months after he sustained a season-ending concussion with the New York Rangers.
Boogaard's agent and a spokeswoman for the Boston University School of Medicine confirmed Sunday that his brain will be examined for signs of a degenerative disease often found in athletes who sustain repeated hits to the head.
"It's an amazing thing he did and his family did. Hopefully, that'll bring some information," agent Ron Salcer said. "We don't know exactly the impact that the concussions might have played."
Salcer spent three days with Boogaard in Los Angeles earlier in the week. Salcer remarked about his client's brightened demeanour, after suffering through a winter of not being able to play or even be active while his head healed.
"He seemed very good, and that's what makes it more painful," Salcer said. "He was really starting to feel better about everything. He was in great shape."
Minneapolis police said there were no outward signs of trauma, but results of an autopsy are expected to take several weeks. There is no known concussion connection to his death, but at Boogaard's wish his family signed papers to donate his brain to the BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The donation was first reported by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.
Salcer said Boogaard was approached by researchers after the death of former NHL enforcer Bob Probert, who died last year at the age of 45. The BU centre found evidence in Probert's brain of the chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is associated with cognitive and behavioural problems and eventually causes dementia.
"He had had a concussion. They played similar styles," Salcer said.
The centre also found previously that Reggie Fleming, a 1960s tough guy who played before helmets became mandatory, had CTE, as did Dave Duerson, an NFL star whose brain was donated after he committed suicide.
Boogaard's parents, Len and Joanne, sister, Kyrsten, and brothers, Aaron, Ryan and Curtis, all attended the memorial inside Xcel Energy Center, where the six-foot-seven, 265-pound enforcer became a fan favourite with the Minnesota Wild for his fighting prowess despite scoring all of two goals in five seasons with the team. They did not address the cause of Boogaard's death or comment on his decision to donate his brain to science.
Ryan politely declined to be interviewed in detail after the event. He said he was already in town to visit his brother, before they all planned to attend their sister's graduation ceremony at Kansas University next weekend.
With a few hundred fans, many wearing replicas of Boogaard's No. 24 jersey with the Wild, standing in the arena lobby, general manager Chuck Fletcher, former teammate Wes Walz and Boogaard's sister and brother took turns telling stories and reading tributes.
The memorial sprouted from a Facebook page urging fans to gather at the arena for a candlelight vigil. Katie Haag, the creator, had tears streaming down her face as she and her friend, Shelby Leske, talked about how much they enjoyed watching Boogaard play.
"That's kind of what made me love the game," Haag said.
Aaron thanked fans for showing up, but he was too choked up to read. Kyrsten took over and remembered her brother as a comfort provider—dependable, big, cuddly, loving and loyal.
"Derek was dependable to a fault. You could depend on him for anything you needed. At any time, your priority became his priority," she said.
Ryan then took over the reading as Kyrsten sobbed into her dad's shoulder.
"Derek was a teddy bear and will always be our teddy bear," he said.
A funeral is planned for Saturday in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Fans left flowers at a table in the lobby, and a replica of his jersey was on display. Boogaard's family took a few minutes to observe the makeshift shrine before departing. Then the song "Amazing Grace" broke out from the group while clips of Boogaard's charitable work and playing career played on television screens overhead.
Walz was joined by former Wild teammates Niklas Backstrom, Andrew Brunette, Brent Burns, Stephane Veilleux and Nick Schultz at the event, with several front office officials and team employees there as well.
"To all his teammates on all his teams, we know that you thought ... he was your comfort," Kyrsten said. "In reality, every day, you guys gave Derek reason to come to work."
AP National Writer Nancy Armour in Chicago, AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen in Boston and Associated Press Writer Amy Forliti in Minneapolis contributed to this report.