Fighting in Ice Hockey Faces Unprecedented Scrutiny

Paul Steinbach Headshot

Derek Boogaard's brain is handled with care these days. It resides with dozens of others at Boston University, donated to the Sports Legacy Institute so that it might be studied for signs of long-term damage.

During six seasons as a National Hockey League enforcer, and an equal number of years of on-ice pugilistic apprenticeship prior to that, Boogaard's head took a beating. Following his death from an accidental alcohol and painkiller overdose a year ago this month, the 28-year-old's brain was found to contain defective tau proteins - the telltale evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, NHL players who likewise thrived with their fists, both died later last summer in apparent suicides.

The tragedies staggered the hockey world and shone perhaps the brightest spotlight yet on the sport's ugly sideshow. Some observers remain optimistic that - in a strictly figurative sense - the hockey enforcer is a dying breed. "The place for the typical enforcer as we knew it two decades ago, or even a decade ago, has all but gone out the window," says Dave Fischer, director of communications for USA Hockey, which is contemplating emergency legislation this summer that would increase penalties for fighting at its junior level as soon as next season.

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