NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — Derek Boogaard was as feared during a rough-and-tumble career as an NHL enforcer as he was gentle and generous off the ice.
Family, friends and fans of Boogaard sobbed Sunday as they fondly remembered the 28-year-old on a somber end to a weekend during which his distraught family agreed to donate his brain to medical researchers.
Boogaard was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment Friday, five months after he sustained a season-ending concussion with the Rangers.
Former Minnesota Wild teammate Wes Walz, speaking at a memorial event spurred by one fan’s Facebook page, recalled Boogaard asking him once if he had seen how hard he “hit that guy” after one of his bruising checks into the boards.
“A lot of guys on our bench grew an inch or two and were a lot more braver when Derek was on the bench, which made our team ultimately that much better,” Walz said to a crowd of a few hundred people gathered in the Xcel Energy Center lobby.
Community work and charitable visits to the Children’s Hospital in St. Paul were just as important to Boogaard as his role as an enforcer, though.
“He exuded this aura about him that made people want to be around him,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “He just brought smiles to everyone’s faces all the time.”
Boogaard’s agent and a spokeswoman for the Boston University School of Medicine confirmed Sunday that his brain will be examined for signs of a degenerative disease often found in athletes who sustain repeated hits to the head.
“It’s an amazing thing he did and his family did. Hopefully, that’ll bring some information,” agent Ron Salcer said. “We don’t know exactly the impact that the concussions might have played.”
Salcer spent three days with Boogaard in Los Angeles earlier in the week. Salcer remarked about his client’s brightened demeanor after suffering through a winter of not being able to play or even be active while his head healed.
“He seemed very good, and that’s what makes it more painful,” Salcer said. “He was really starting to feel better about everything. He was in great shape.”
Minneapolis police said there were no outward signs of trauma, but results of an autopsy are expected to take several weeks. There is no known concussion connection to his death, but at Boogaard’s wish his family signed papers to donate his brain to the BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
A funeral is planned for Saturday in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Salcer said Boogaard was approached by researchers after the death of former NHL enforcer Bob Probert, who died last year at the age of 45. The BU center found evidence in Probert’s brain of the chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is associated with cognitive and behavioral problems and eventually causes dementia.
“He had had a concussion. They played similar styles,” Salcer said.
The center also found previously that Reggie Fleming, a 1960s tough guy who played before helmets became mandatory, had CTE, as did Dave Duerson, an NFL star whose brain was donated after he committed suicide.
Boogaard’s parents, Len and Joanne, sister Kyrsten, and brothers Aaron, Ryan and Curtis, all attended the memorial inside Xcel Energy Center, where the 6-foot-7, 265-pound enforcer became a fan favorite with the Wild for his fighting prowess despite scoring all of two goals in five seasons with the team. They did not address the cause of Boogaard’s death or comment on his decision to donate his brain to science.
Ryan politely declined to be interviewed in detail after the event. He said he was already in town to visit his brother and the family had planned to attend their sister’s graduation ceremony at Kansas University next weekend.
As fans, many wearing replicas of Boogaard’s No. 24 jersey with the Wild, stood in a tear-filled arena lobby, Boogaard’s sister and brother read a tribute after others told stories of his impact.
Aaron thanked fans for showing up, but he was too choked up to read. Kyrsten took over and remembered her brother as a comfort provider — dependable, big, cuddly, loving and loyal. Ryan then took over the reading as Kyrsten sobbed into her dad’s shoulder.
“Derek was a teddy bear and will always be our teddy bear,” he said.
Fans left flowers at a table in the lobby, and a replica of his jersey was on display. Boogaard’s family took a few minutes to observe the makeshift shrine before departing. Then the song “Amazing Grace” broke out from the group while clips of Boogaard’s charitable work and playing career played on television screens overhead.
Walz was joined by former Wild teammates Niklas Backstrom, Andrew Brunette, Brent Burns, Stephane Veilleux and Nick Schultz at the event, with several front office officials and team employees there as well.
“To all his teammates on all his teams, we know that you thought … he was your comfort,” Kyrsten said. “In reality, every day, you guys gave Derek reason to come to work.”
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