Derek Boogaard was one of the NHL's toughest enforcers for six seasons, but in the end, the former Wild and Rangers player couldn't fight off what ultimately killed him.
One week after the 28-year-old fan favorite was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment, his family acknowledged he struggled with addiction and "repeated courageous attempts at rehabilitation."
The statement came hours after Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Baker revealed Friday that Boogaard died of an accidental, toxic mix of alcohol and the powerful prescription painkiller, Oxycodone.
Boogaard's family, which will gather Saturday for his funeral in his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan, thanked the Wild, Rangers, National Hockey League and NHL Players' Association "for supporting Derek's continued efforts in his battle."
"Derek had been showing tremendous improvement but was ultimately unable to beat this opponent," the message from Boogaard's parents, Len and Joanne, and brothers and sister said. "While he played and lived with pain for many years, his passion for the game, his teammates and his community work was unstoppable."
While it's still unclear what Boogaard had sought treatment for - an addiction to alcohol, painkillers or both - a former Wild team official said his death should raise larger questions about the roles and risks players like Boogaard assume in the NHL. "We need to change the culture and understanding in this game that tough guys especially, but all players who suffer head injuries are especially susceptible to depression and drug and alcohol addictions," said Tom Lynn, the Wild's assistant general manager from 2000-09.
Alcohol increases risk
Oxycodone, which can be addictive and has been blamed in many overdose deaths, reduces the brain center that controls respiration, causing one to breathe less. Alcohol use while taking painkillers can enhance those breathing problems and increase the risk of overdose, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Sources say Boogaard, who didn't play for the Rangers after suffering a concussion Dec. 9, voluntarily admitted himself into rehab at least three times since 2009, once while playing for the Wild.
Lynn, now a player agent who did not work for the Wild when Boogaard entered rehab, says his death is a wake-up call.
"Making a better helmet or changing the rules is fine, but they're not going to protect a guy when he's going into a bar or when he's getting three different doctors to get him prescriptions for painkillers because he's in the throes of pain and addiction."
Lynn added, "Here was a guy, like so many other tough guys, who really put his health and a lot of pain on the line to protect his teammates. He wasn't a mean guy, and so many tough guys are like this, they don't go out there because they like hurting people. They're really out there to protect their teammates. ... And in the end, we couldn't do enough to help Boogey, and that's the toughest part."
Back home from L.A.
Boogaard returned to Minneapolis on May 12 from Los Angeles. Witnesses say he spent that night into the wee hours of May 13 in downtown Minneapolis at several bars.
Sources say he was last seen alive by his brother Aaron around 4 a.m. May 13. Aaron Boogaard picked up brother Ryan at the airport that afternoon. When they arrived at Derek's home, they discovered him unconscious and not breathing.
The drug Percocet, a painkiller with small doses of Oxycodone in it, was found at the scene, according to sources close to the incident.
"He was a great guy," said Stewart Hafiz, manager of Sneaky Pete's bar in downtown Minneapolis, where Boogaard frequented. Witnesses say Boogaard was at Sneaky Pete's May 13. Hafiz didn't see him but had on other occasions.
"A lot of these athletes come in and never talk to the general public or take pictures," Hafiz said. "He always signed pictures, autographs. ... He would always be amongst the patrons."
Wild players say they never knew Boogaard was in rehab. Many remember finding it peculiar that he disappeared during the 2009 training camp and first two weeks of the season, but via texts, Boogaard told them he was getting over a concussion.
Because of anonymity of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Program, the Wild also reported that Boogaard was sidelined by a concussion.
"Regardless of what happened, this doesn't tarnish my love for Derek," Wild veteran Andrew Brunette said. "He selflessly gave everything and did not want anything in return. He was a guardian angel to all his teammates."
His funeral will be at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Depot where Boogaard's father, two uncles, stepmother and brother, Ryan, did their training.
On Saturday morning, Wild owner Craig Leipold and his son, Connor, planned to board his private plane with Wild players Brunette, Brent Burns, Nick Schultz and staff members.
Wild GM Chuck Fletcher will fly in from Hamilton, Ontario, where the Wild's minor-league team played Friday night.
Ryan Boogaard said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman called Boogaard’s mother Friday to extend his condolences and left a voicemail with Boogaard’s father. NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr and many Rangers will also attend the services.
"For me, Derek's image will be the same as when he scored that goal against Washington last year -- that smile on his face, that grin, that little laugh," Brunette said. "It was that same grin he'd have at the card table when he went all-in with pocket 3s and won the pot.
"Regardless of how he died, that'll never change that image."
Staff Writer Matt McKinney contributed to this report.