As if Aaron Boogaard needed another reminder of his brother’s death.
When Boogaard came to Wichita, as an player for Rio Grande Valley, for the Central Hockey League playoffs in April, he was less than a year removed from discovering the dead body of his brother Derek, a New York Rangers enforcer, in a Minneapolis apartment.
Ten months before Boogaard’s visit to Wichita, he was arrested on drug charges related to his brother’s death, a case that wasn’t resolved until October, when felony charges were dropped and Boogaard pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of interfering with the scene of a death.
The turmoil and heartache Boogaard endured and is still battling apparently made him an easy target.
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According to Boogaard, a small number of Thunder fans made verbal and non-verbal references to his brother during the series, prompting mild complaints by Boogaard via social media.
It seemed like a major incident at the time, but like more serious issues in his life, Boogaard is trying to move on. He signed with the Thunder this offseason, bringing with him a legacy of toughness accompanied by baggage from his brother’s death and the harsh reaction some had to it.
"Unfortunately that stuff happened," Boogaard said. "But who am I to tell people what they can and cannot say? It sucks and it’s unfortunate that it happened, but I guess it’s kind of just the world we live in nowdays."
According to reports, Aaron Boogaard admitted to police to giving his brother a prescription oxycodone pill on the night of May 12, 2011. Derek, on recess from drug rehabilitation in California to attend sister Krysten’s graduation from the University of Kansas, first stopped in Minneapolis to spend time with friends and family.
When Derek Boogaard returned to the apartment from a night of heavy drinking, younger brother Aaron was home. Derek frequently called to Aaron from the bedroom to report that his head was spinning, but Derek eventually fell asleep, or so Aaron believed.
Aaron spent the remainder of the night at his girlfriend’s house and returned the following afternoon to find Derek still in bed, presumably sleeping. Aaron left to pick up another brother, Ryan, from the airport, and it wasn’t until they returned three hours later, around 6 p.m., that something seemed wrong.
When they went to check on Derek, he wasn’t moving. According to a quote from Ryan in the New York Times, Derek was white and rigor mortis had set in. The death was ruled accidental due to the combination of alcohol and painkillers. Derek Boogaard, who played six seasons in the NHL, was 28.
"It’s awful," Aaron Boogaard said. "There’s nothing you can say or do to change that, it happened. It sucks that I lost a brother, a best friend and a role model. All three of those — even one of those — it sucks. But you take it day-by-day and stay tight with family and hold them close."
Before he could complete the grieving process over his brother’s death, Aaron Boogaard found himself at the center of an investigation into it.
In July of last year, Boogaard was arrested in Minneapolis and charged with suspicion of prescription fraud/possession of prescription pills.
Since Boogaard admitted to giving his brother a pill from the stash he hid from Derek, who was battling severe addiction, and because the oxycodone played a role in Derek’s death, more severe charges such as manslaughter and homicide could have been on the table.
Ultimately, since authorities could not prove that the pill Aaron gave Derek was the one that led directly to Derek’s death, those charges were not pursued.
Boogaard was released on bail, but the investigation took nearly four months to complete. In October, the fraud and possession charges were dropped and Boogaard pleaded guilty to interfering with the scene of a death for flushing the remainder of Derek’s pills.
Boogaard, a native of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, was sentenced to two years’ probation and 80 hours of community service. The visa that allowed him to play hockey in the United States was not affected, and Boogaard joined Rio Grande Valley, in Hidalgo, Texas, in late October.
"There’s grieving," Boogaard said. "There’s always going to be grieving, until I’m gone. That’s all that’s going to be talked is my brother and the achievements that he accomplished, coming out of a small town in Saskatchewan and being bounced around like we did. To end up playing for the New York Rangers, there isn’t a bigger stage than that. I couldn’t have been more proud of him."
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Though Aaron Boogaard calls Derek his role model, he makes clear that drug addiction is one way in which he didn’t follow his brother’s path. On the ice, though, the two couldn’t be much more similar.
Derek was one of the most intimidating enforcers in the NHL, spending five seasons with the Minnesota Wild before joining the Rangers in 2010. His role, like it was at every level prior to the NHL, was to fight.
It’s one of the most important pieces of a hockey team — the enforcer who protects a team’s star players and who deters violent or overly aggressive play by the opposition. In 277 NHL games, Derek scored three goals but accumulated 589 penalty minutes.
With that role, however, came lots of intense physical pain. To deal with it, Derek took painkillers and, according to Aaron, quickly became addicted.
He was dying in other ways, too. After his death, it was discovered that Derek had a degenerative brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease often found in athletes who had suffered multiple concussions.
Just months after Derek’s death, two other former NHL enforcers, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, also died. Rypien’s death was officially called a suicide but no official cause of death has been released for Belak.
Aaron plays with similar abandon as his brother. He knows the risks of being an enforcer because they have literally hit home. But, at least for now, he’s not considering an escape from hockey.
"I’m my own man," Boogaard said. "If I had decided that it was time to quit because of that, I would’ve quit. Obviously, I’m not ready to move out of that role. ... It doesn’t really affect me, I don’t feel. My brother used to say all the time, you live by the sword and you die by the sword. Might as well keep that rolling."
• • •
Aaron Boogaard’s intensity occasionally comes out at inopportune times, like when he punched a Texas Brahmas team photographer during a game in February, earning a game misconduct and a six-game suspension.
Boogaard held himself together after the alleged verbal abuse by fans during the playoffs. He posted on Twitter about fans heckling him about his brother, but posted no real reaction to it.
According to Boogaard, only "a couple guys" participated in the heckling, which was denounced by other Thunder fans on message boards following the series.
"I would just hear, ‘Your brother, blah, blah, blah,’ and I would see people against the glass pretending to snort (cocaine). Our trainer ... sat down beside me on the bench the whole time anybody would say something. Anytime somebody would pipe up, he’d get in my ear to drown it out."
Boogaard said he isn’t holding the actions of a small number of Thunder fans against the rest.
• • •
The legal fallout from Derek’s death still isn’t complete — the Boogaard family filed a lawsuit against the NHL Players Association last month, seeking $9.8 million in damages and alleging the union was negligent in failing to file a grievance against the Rangers seeking the remaining $5 million on Derek’s contract.
The emotional fallout will likely never subside for 26-year-old Aaron Boogaard, but the Thunder offers him a fresh start. Playing for coach Kevin McClelland, Boogaard will have a leader who was also known for fighting.
Last season, Boogaard tallied 129 penalty minutes in 56 games. He won’t stop fighting.
"It’s just something you know," Boogaard said. "It’s just something you’ve been doing."