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On Derek Boogaard’s Death

The hockey world was shocked to learn that Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers had died on May 13th.  He was arguably the toughest fighter in the league and feared by many.  How could he be dead at age 28?  There was a rush to judgement that initially blamed concussions.  Immediately after his death, the only responsible thing was to suspend judgement until we had more facts. 

Now that we are a little over a week after the event and an autopsy has taken place, we are in a better position to piece things together.  We know that Boogaard died due to toxicity of a combination of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone.  We know that Boogaard has voluntarily admitted himself to rehab in the NHL’s substance abuse program three times since 2009.  We know that Boogaard hadn’t played since December 9th, 2010 because of a concussion.

It appears that Boogaard had a problem with painkillers and possibly also alcohol.  This is not uncommon in a profession where player’s bodies take a beating on a regular basis for months out of the year.  Injuries and possibly concussions lead to a need to take painkillers to compete and this lead to his death.

One problem is that today’s painkillers are too addictive and too easily abused.  The interaction between these painkillers and alcohol is too strong making them too dangerous.  The legal prescription drug industry is probably more dangerous to NHL players than illicit drugs.  The barrier to entry is easier since competent doctors prescribe these drugs to help the player get back into the line-up and there is no neglect of one’s well-being to begin using them.  This is a serious problem with the legal drug pushers in the pharmaceutical industry today.  Far too many deaths have resulted as a result of their product.

The NHL is very susceptible to this problem as injured players will be prescribed painkillers in an effort to get them back into the line-up.  The toll on an NHL player in an 82 game season with a few pre-season games and up to 28 more playoff games is huge.  The toll is even larger on a player who is paid to fight on a regular basis.  Having other players pound on him with their fists on a regular basis adds up to a lot of pain over the course of the season.

The worst case is for hockey to follow the path of professional wrestling where every couple weeks a wrestler seems to die at a younger age than he should.  This problem is exacerbated in wrestling because of widespread steroid use, illicit drugs, alcohol and a pay scheme where injured wrestlers do not get paid, so there is a real push to get back to active status before a wrestler should.  Hockey will not get as big a problem as wrestling has, but it is going down some of the same roads.

I doubt that Derek Boogaard will be the only professional hockey player to die as a result of painkillers and alcohol.  It may not reach epidemic level, but each preventable death is a tragedy. 

What are solutions?  Reducing the number of games in the schedule would help, but economically it is not something the NHL wants to do.  Reducing pain killer usage is unlikely, but North American society is too dependent upon prescription drugs.  We need safer drugs where there isn’t a significant risk of death or coma by combining them with alcohol and we need them to be less habit forming.  The paradigm that if something is wrong you can take a magic pill to make it go away is a problem today.  It claimed the life of Derek Boogaard.

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HockeyFanOhio's avatar

If you have drugs that are less likely to be addictive and safer to use then they will be less effective too.  I agree that we have a “take a pill” attitude to fix our problems.  But sometimes those pills are necessary.  The obvious thing is to not mix these drugs and alcohol.  If he was taking oxycodone he should not have been drinking.  I’m not trying to lay the blame all at his feet, but the dangers are well known and obvious.  Especially now.  Do we go to using drugs that are less addictive and don’t cause such side affects with alcohol?  Are we willing to accept the trade off of less effective drugs, more pain and slower return to the line up?  It’s not any easy call either way.

Posted by HockeyFanOhio from Central Ohio on 05/21/11 at 08:05 PM ET

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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