Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard


A 2014 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
The much-anticipated debut from the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter, Boy on Ice is a moving human story and behind-the-scenes account of a life lived in the glare of sporting fame.
The tragic death of hockey star Derek Boogaard at twenty-eight was front-page news across the country in 2011 and helped shatter the silence about violence and concussions in professional sports. Now, in a...

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Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard

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A 2014 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
The much-anticipated debut from the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter, Boy on Ice is a moving human story and behind-the-scenes account of a life lived in the glare of sporting fame.
The tragic death of hockey star Derek Boogaard at twenty-eight was front-page news across the country in 2011 and helped shatter the silence about violence and concussions in professional sports. Now, in a gripping work of narrative nonfiction, acclaimed reporter John Branch tells the shocking story of Boogaard's life and heartbreaking death.
Boy on Ice is the richly told story of a mountain of a man who made it to the absolute pinnacle of his sport. Widely regarded as the toughest man in the NHL, Boogaard was a gentle man off the ice but a merciless fighter on it. With great narrative drive, Branch recounts Boogaard's unlikely journey from lumbering kid playing pond-hockey on the prairies of Saskatchewan, so big his skates would routinely break beneath his feet; to his teenaged junior hockey days, when one brutal outburst of violence brought Boogaard to the attention of professional scouts; to his days and nights as a star enforcer with the Minnesota Wild and the storied New York Rangers, capable of delivering career-ending punches and intimidating entire teams. But, as Branch reveals, behind the scenes Boogaard's injuries and concussions were mounting and his mental state was deteriorating, culminating in his early death from an overdose of alcohol and painkillers.Based on months of investigation and hundreds of interviews with Boogaard's family, friends, teammates, and coaches, Boy on Ice is a brilliant work for fans of Michael Lewis's The Blind Side or Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights. This is a book that raises deep and disturbing questions about the systemic brutality of contact sports—from peewees to professionals—and the damage that reaches far beyond the game.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

His teammates called him "soft spoken, kind hearted, and a gentle giant"; his opponents called six foot seven hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard "the Boogeyman," one of the most intimidating players in the history of the NFL. His reputation would survive him because this Saskatchewan native would die of the cumulative effects of multiple concussions and prescription painkiller overdoses before he was twenty-nine. This illustrated biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist John Branch touches on Boogaard's heart-wrenching personal story, but it also provides a sobering introduction to the epidemic of life-draining, brain-damaging concussions among hockey enforcers.

The New York Times Book Review - Steve Almond
…devastating…Branch…knows he has a blockbuster story on his hands and lets the facts drive the narrative…What emerges most forcefully from this patient and painstaking account is the entire system erected to nurture hockey's cult of violence…Yet Branch never resorts to polemics. His book is heartbreaking because it shows us, in tender detail, a life consumed by our unholy appetites…Boy on Ice is a startling indictment of the groupthink that prevails within America's vast athletic industrial complex, those bright arenas in which any pleas for mercy or morality are drowned out by the roar of our own barbarism.
The New York Times - Stephen Brunt
…a fine, impeccably researched book…It is not an indictment of fighting in hockey per se—Mr. Branch approaches that subject dispassionately—but it certainly paints an unflattering picture of how the sport, and more specifically the business of the sport, uses up and then discards those who are called on to be its policemen.
Publishers Weekly
★ 06/23/2014
New York Times reporter Branch’s chronicle of Derek Boogaard’s winning but ultimately tragic life as hockey’s greatest enforcer is as tense and exciting as a hockey game. Branch follows Boogaard from his earliest days in the rinks as a member of the Regina Pats to his days with the Minnesota Wild and eventually to the New York Rangers. Boogaard, he points out, was never the most talented player on his minor hockey teams, but that he was a “big obstacle planted in front of the goal to gum up the opponent’s offense.” As his career took off, Boogaard accepted his role as enforcer, and Branch brings to life the highlights of his biggest fights, including his bout against Todd Fedoruk, which effectively ended Fedoruk’s career. Boogaard’s kindness and compassion off the ice contrasts with his on-ice persona, and the many fights and the painkillers begin to take their toll. Branch captures the sorrow and anguish of a young athlete’s career collapsing due to the combination of drugs and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—a kind of dementia that causes memory loss and emotional instability (sufferers are referred to as “punch drunks”)—and asks piercing questions about violence in sports. (Oct.)
Al Michaels
“Anything written by John Branch is a compelling must-read. Boy on Ice is transcendent and riveting and his best work yet.”
Steve Fainaru
“Fascinating and chilling. In meticulous detail, John Branch creates a blood-drenched parable for the hidden human toll of sports violence staged for our entertainment. The rise and fall of Derek Boogaard—quintessential NHL goon—is unlike any sports biography you will ever read.”
Will Blythe
“Punch by punch, pill by pill, the dread mounts in John Branch's brilliantly reported account of Derek Boogaard, a modern-day gladiator who gave everything for a career in hockey, not least of all his hauntingly short and quietly kind life.”
Warren St. John
“Boy on Ice is a beautifully written and haunting journey into the jagged psychology of the modern athlete. It compels fans to examine their own roles in the spectacle and reminds us in often brutal terms that for our sports heroes, the real struggles take place far beyond the ice or the field of play.”
Sean Fitz-gerald - National Post
“A rich, nuanced and essential book.”
Jeremy Keehn - Globe and Mail
“[Boy on Ice] highlights the unique power that careful journalism, combined with the unique lens a curious outsider brings to a culture, can add to a story that is already powerful on its own.”
David Feschuk - Toronto Star
“A stark account of an NHL tough guy’s descent into despair and addiction.”
Stephen Brunt - New York Times
“A fine, impeccably researched book.”
Kate Tuttle - Boston Globe
“Devastating…Expos[es] the violent tradition that pushed this young man to the brink.”
Steve Almond - New York Times Book Review
“Devastating… Heartbreaking because it shows us, in tender detail, a life consumed by our unholy appetites… Boy on Ice is a startling indictment of the groupthink that prevails within America’s vast athletic industrial complex.”
Ed Sherman - Chicago Tribune
“A haunting tale.”
Kurtis Scaletta - Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A thorough, compassionate, if ultimately devastating profile of Derek Boogaard.”
Bryan Cronan - Christian Science Monitor
“Meticulously reported and beautifully written.”
Library Journal
★ 09/15/2014
There is no question that hockey is a beautiful sport to watch and an exhilarating one to play. Its practitioners accomplish their feats at lightning quick speeds while under heavy duress from their opponents' potential body checks and stick work. However, the sport has often been cast in the dark shadow of the existence and acceptance of fighting. In this debut book, journalist Branch examines the life and death of one noted hockey pugilist whose job—he argues—led to chronic and traumatic brain damage as a result of numerous concussions, prescription drug abuse, and ultimately, his death. It traces Derek Boogaard's humble beginnings playing minor hockey in frigid arenas in small towns in Saskatchewan to his life as a National Hockey League enforcer, plying his trade in modern day ice palaces as thousands of fans chanted his name. Branch tells a tale of Faustian proportion, describing a young man who desperately wanted to play hockey professionally, but whose only means to accomplish this were through using his great size (he was 6'7" without skates) and his fists. VERDICT A heartbreaking examination of a young man's life destroyed by the sport he loved. Highly recommended.—Brian Renvall, Mesalands Community Coll., Tucumcari, NM
Kirkus Reviews
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Branch debuts with a biography of hockey player Derek Boogaard (1982-2011), a fierce fighter on the ice who died of an overdose of alcohol and prescription painkillers at the age of 28. "No one ever told Derek that his primary mission in hockey would be to fight," writes the author. Yet that is what the shy, oversized Saskatchewan native did throughout his career, first for minor teams, then with the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers, where he became the NHL's most feared fighter. In this engrossing narrative, based on an award-winning Times series, Branch details both Boogaard's life growing up in rural, hockey-mad Canada, where his size stigmatized him in school, and his years of playing hockey, when size—not talent—brought him success. In a sport where violence attracts crowds, Boogaard's role as an enforcer was to intimidate opponents and protect his team's star players, often engaging in game-stopping fights. With spotlights beaming and Rocky theme music blaring, the enforcer and his adversaries would beat on each other with fists and sticks and then spend a few minutes in a penalty box. To alleviate stabbing pain in his back, hips and shoulder, Boogaard took increasing amounts of painkillers. In his fourth professional season, he obtained 25 prescriptions for oxycodone and hydrocodone from 10 doctors. Despite efforts at rehabilitation, he persisted in his addiction, becoming increasingly erratic and depressed. An autopsy revealed that Boogaard had suffered a series of concussions as well as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition caused by repeated blows to the head. Boogaard's death and increasing public awareness of the dangers of concussions have prompted steps to limit fighting in hockey's junior leagues, but there's been no action at the professional level, where a culture of "concussion denial" reigns. A sad, tragic story that underscores the high human cost of violent entertainment.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393239393
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/1/2014
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 35,115
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

John Branch is a reporter for the New York Times. His 2012 piece “Snow Fall” won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. He lives near San Francisco.

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