NHL needs comprehensive system to track player treatment.
The tragic tale of Derek Boogaard, the former Minnesota Wild player who died in 2011 of an accidental overdose of alcohol and narcotic painkillers, is an indictment of the National Hockey League's handling of injuries and substance abuse.
It's also a cautionary tale for athletes, their families and officials with college and professional leagues in which painkillers are a way of life.
A New York Times story published Monday included disturbing new details on Boogaard's challenges with substance abuse and addiction, which may have been brought on by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain-injury condition that may be directly related to his role as one of the NHL's top fighters.
The story was partly based on medical, pharmaceutical, cellphone and other records supplied to the Times by Boogaard's father, Len, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for nearly 30 years.
Most troubling, the story revealed that Boogaard had plenty of help on the way down, leading to an addiction that would ultimately kill him. More than a dozen doctors prescribed more than 100 prescriptions for thousands of pills, including narcotic painkillers, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety and anti-depression pills, according to the Times.
Prescriptions were written by doctors affiliated with the Wild; with the New York Rangers, with whom he played next, and by an oral surgeon in Minneapolis. In just one six-month timeframe, from October 2008 to April 2009, Boogaard received 25 prescriptions, for 622 pills, from 10 doctors who were treating him for pain.
Many of the prescriptions were filled without examinations after Boogaard simply sent text message requests to team physicians. And prescriptions were refilled repeatedly even after Boogaard had been admitted to the league's substance-abuse program, the Times reported.
Ultimately, Derek Boogaard was responsible for his own behavior, including which drugs he took. And no one knows how many pills Boogaard might have bought on the streets or received from teammates or friends. Nevertheless, the Boogaard case appears to represent a catastrophic failure on the part of the NHL, the Wild and the Rangers franchises and their affiliated doctors.
The Wild refused to take questions from an editorial writer, relying instead on an official statement that cited patient-doctor confidentiality. The team owes Boogaard's family a much more thorough explanation about the seemingly cavalier way in which it handled the health crisis of one of its players.
In the wake of Boogaard's death, Philadelphia Flyers center Ian Laperriere told the Globe and Mail in Toronto that pain pill use is not uncommon in the NHL. "The pill issue is a big thing ... it's a problem, and people need to start talking about it," he said.
Laperriere also told the paper that players feel pressure to play with injuries -- and not to back down from fights -- because they fear losing their roster spots if they sit out a skirmish.
"If you do, you're not going to have a contract the next year," Laperriere said. "There are 100 guys lining up to take your job."
At a minimum, the NHL needs a coordinated system to track medical care. If players need to revise contracts to allow a secure, confidential database of treatment related to their injuries, they should push their union to embrace it. Boogaard's case should remind them that their lives are at risk.
The National Football League should be paying attention, too. A number of NFL players have gone public with their stories about pain and addiction. Brett Favre shocked sports fans with his 1996 admission that he had "possibly become dependent upon medication."
The quarterback later said he started using Vicodin to treat injuries and eventually took up to 15 a day, sometimes washing them down with alcohol. His primary sources were teammates who had their own supplies.
Favre, known as one of the league's toughest players for his ability to play through injuries, voluntarily entered the NFL's substance-abuse program and spent 46 days in an inpatient treatment center in Kansas.
No system, however thorough, will be totally immune from those trying to game it. We might learn that Boogaard, for instance, was untruthful with his doctors about what had already been prescribed, and when.
That's all the more reason why the league should establish a sound system to monitor treatment.