Ryan Boogaard tells the sad tale of how he lost his big brother, former Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard, to painkillers.
Two years ago, in August, Ryan Boogaard had a disturbing phone conversation with his older brother.
"He was just out of it. He wasn't Derek," Ryan said. "I had no idea what was going on. I hung up, immediately called my parents and said, 'There's something wrong with Derek.'"
The same introverted Derek Boogaard was observed at the Minnesota State Fair around the same time. Out to model the Wild's new third jersey, the fun-loving enforcer looked sluggish and unhappy.
"A month later," Ryan said, "we found out he was hooked on painkillers."
It would be an addiction Derek Boogaard would never beat. On May 13, he died from a toxic mix of alcohol and the powerful painkiller Oxycodone.
As the NHL season neared in 2009, the disturbing phone calls kept coming.
On Sept. 20, Derek swallowed some pills. Disoriented, he dialed friends to try to find his way home. A Metro Transit police officer found Derek asleep in his car on the side of a Twin Cities road. The officer took Derek home, but when he awoke, he had no idea what happened. Boogaard's ex-fiancée called his family. Ryan was home in Regina, Saskatchewan, at a training course for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police when his mother, Joanne, called.
"I just couldn't believe what I was hearing, and that's when I remembered how Derek told me about Fridge's abuse issues," Ryan Boogaard said.
"Fridge" is another NHL enforcer, Todd Fedoruk, who became close with Boogaard while they both played for the Wild two seasons before. Fedoruk has battled alcoholism and drug abuse for 15 seasons; as luck would have it, he was playing for Tampa Bay, which was in Regina to play an exhibition game that same night.
"I went downstairs to the dressing room and waited for the players to come off the ice," Ryan said. "After the game, the team was walking by and I just said, 'Fridge, I need to talk to you. I'm Derek Boogaard's brother.' He came outside and I told him what my mom had told me. I asked, 'What do we do?' He said we had to get Derek help, but that Derek had to accept it and want to get help for himself."
The next morning, Ryan Boogaard flew to Minneapolis. At the crack of dawn, Sept. 23, Ryan and Derek were on a plane bound for Los Angeles, where Derek entered rehab -- for the first time.
But Derek Boogaard, one of the NHL's most intimidating fighters at 6-8, would never defeat his biggest opponent.
Coming to terms
With training camps a little more than a week from opening across the NHL, many are still are trying to come to grips with how it is possible Derek could die from alcohol/painkiller toxicity mere hours after getting out of rehab for a second time.
Aaron Boogaard, the younger brother of Ryan and Derek who still lives in the Minneapolis apartment where Derek died, faces charges for giving Derek a non-prescribed, illegal painkiller the evening before he died and flushing the remaining pills down the toilet after he died.
Ryan Boogaard, 27, now an RCMP officer in Saskatchewan, says Derek never could overcome his addiction.
"Derek, he never really ... he never really admitted to having a problem," Ryan said, talking about the grief the close-knit family feels. "He'd always be telling us, 'I'm doing good. I'm doing good.' Derek really never got past that first step."
If Boogaard had gotten to that critical point, Fedoruk said, "He'd still be with us. That's one of the things with the disease of addiction. It's ultimately out to kill you."
"I guess I just look at it like I was born with it," said Fedoruk, 32, who is trying out for the Vancouver Canucks. "When I first found drugs and alcohol, it did something for me that nothing else really did for me. I fell in love with it at an early age."
Fedoruk was sober from 20 to 24, then relapsed on and off for six years before seeking help from the NHL/NHL Players' Association's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program -- the same program Boogaard was in -- in April 2010.
"I had gotten right back to where I was," Fedoruk said. "I knew all too well what was wrong with me, and I was just self-destructing and going down a path where I knew what the final result was.
"I knew I couldn't do it alone. I just wish Derek got to that same place. He didn't. He was always in pain. He took the pills we all do. I remember always saying to him, 'Be careful with those things, man.'"
Lessons to be learned
Ryan Boogaard, Fedoruk and others hope players learn from Derek's death the dangers of painkiller abuse.
"As players at times you think you're indestructible," said ex-Wild winger Andrew Brunette, who signed with Chicago on July 1.
The Boogaard family believes Derek became addicted after shoulder surgery in April 2009. After years of fighting 20 or 30 times a year, especially in junior hockey and the minors, he dealt with pain for years.
"He had a herniated disk in his back," Ryan said. "The doctors told him, 'When your career is done, you're going to have to get this fixed, because it'll affect you for the rest of your life.'
"For a fourth-line guy trying to stick in the NHL, he couldn't afford to take a year off. So he took pills. And ... I know his hands were always hurting. They were clubs. They weren't even shaped like hands anymore."
Boogaard also relied on the sleep-aid Ambien for years. During the 2009 trip to rehab, Ryan said, "The doctors told us, 'You combine Ambien and painkillers, you're getting hooked. There's no doubt about it.'
"I'm telling you, there is a lot of prescription pill drug abuse in the NHL. I have a real close friend of mine who plays in the NHL. He told me a story where he had his wisdom teeth pulled, and right away one guy called up and said, 'Can I have your painkillers?'"
Spreading the word
Because of the privacy in the NHL and NHL Players Association rehab program, teammates didn't know why Boogaard disappeared for a month in 2009. Everybody was told he had a concussion, "and Derek was embarrassed and ashamed. He didn't want anybody to know," said Ryan, who believes that the only person on the Wild that knew his brother was in rehab was GM Chuck Fletcher, who helped arrange the trip to L.A. with agent Ron Salcer.
Some teammates have privately said Boogaard would ask for Percocet and Ambien on plane trips, and because they didn't know of his addiction, they'd just give them to him.
"This gets back to the education," Brunette said. "When they come around and talk to each team in training camp, there needs to be a complete awareness of what these things can do, that we can't be giving them to teammates or going out and drinking with them."
NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said Tuesday that the union has spent much time during its summer meetings with players stressing these dangers. "We hope what Derek went through will be an eye-opener," Weatherdon said.
Derek missed the New York Rangers' entire second half last year because of a concussion and shoulder injury. At some point, it's clear Derek relapsed because he had previously been passing drug tests.
It's been almost four months since Boogaard died. Brunette has done a lot of soul-searching since then.
"You wish you would have known, that you have seen the signs then, and not now, that you would have reached out then," Brunette said. "You look at yourself and wonder if you could have done more. You feel guilt.
"I'm just as confused now as when he died. Time hasn't cleared up anything for me. I just know a friend has passed away way too young, and I really, really hope that we as a league learn something from this and not sweep it under the carpet."
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