Harvard and the Boogeyman

Will it be the Aeros' brawler or brainiac who gets to the NHL?

"I didn't know what to do, dealing with guys like that," he says. "He's a little guy and he used to play hockey, but not in my position where you have to fight. Either he'd been too scared or too small to fight. Guys like that don't get it, and it's hard talking to them."

People have never understood. And Boogaard doesn't like to do a lot of explaining, either. He's disconcertingly mellow off the ice, and his most eloquent defense of his play seldom goes beyond a shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance that outsiders will never understand.

Growing up, he says, "Parents would complain to the coaches about me: 'All he does is just take penalties,' they'd say. I would always be physical even if it wasn't fighting guys."

Boogaard's home away from home: the penalty box.
Daniel Kramer
Boogaard's home away from home: the penalty box.
Bala's speed and quickness are his biggest assets.
Daniel Kramer
Bala's speed and quickness are his biggest assets.

He was the lumbering galoot who found early on that hitting those speedy guys, or taking on the biggest opponents, provided immense satisfaction that erased his frustration at stickhandling or scoring.

His father, who calls himself "one of the grunts" of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- the equivalent of a street cop -- was rotated to new assignments every five years. So Derek, who was friendly enough but never a popular glad-hander, would move to hamlets like Saskatoon, Stroud, Herbert and Regina, and go out for the local hockey team.

Kids' hockey in Canada can be a mind-warping mess of cutthroat, constant pressure on not-yet-emotionally-mature boys to succeed. The backstabbing, the complaining, the taunting coaches and whining opponents' parents did something Boogaard thought would never happen: They killed his lifelong love of hockey. He quit at 15.

"I just got sick of it all" is about all he'll say. But he came back for one more year, "just to have fun with it" and play without caring about all the bullshit. Within a few months he got invited to his first professional camp, the local Regina Pats of the WHL.

He didn't make the team, but an amazing growth spurt of almost ten inches in a few months -- he required crutches for a while as his knees struggled to keep up -- and a rediscovered love of the game sharpened his focus for the next year's camp.

He knew the only way he was going to make it in the WHL: On the first shift of the first practice, he "dropped the gloves" and got into a brawl with the Pats' toughest player.

"He went in there and took on their heavyweight guy right away," says his brother Ryan. "Travis Churchman, he was about six-four and 235 pounds, and Derek dropped him three or four times. He got in, like, 12 fights in four scrimmages."

Fighting is just part of the job, Derek says with yet another of the shrugs that are supposed to explain everything.

Sometimes you taunt a guy into fighting; sometimes you pull his jersey or poke him with a stick. "Sometimes you just go up to the other team's guy and say, 'You wanna fight?' " he says. "You don't want to sucker-punch a guy."

He has trained with professional boxer Scott LeDoux, but boxing and hockey fighting are two different things. "In boxing you've got to think a lot more, you've got to be calm and patient and pick your spots," he says. "In hockey you just generally go at it."

About the only major injury he's had was a broken jaw; he hunted the perpetrator down the next season and "I fought him and I beat him pretty good," he says quietly enough.

Even his father, Len, can't figure out what happens with his son.

"Sometimes it's like I don't know him," he says. "He's like a lunatic skating out there, and then off the ice he's just a big teddy bear."

Ryan has a photograph of a brawl Boogaard was in while with the Medicine Hat Tigers. He and Grant McNeill of the Prince Albert Raiders are in classic hockey-fight pose, the left hand grabbing the front of the other one's jersey, the right hand drawn back as far as possible for an almost comically long roundhouse punch.

Both are aware they've left themselves hopelessly open for taking a solid punch -- and Boogaard is grinning. The grin is not in full bloom yet, but it's coming -- unless it gets wiped out by McNeill's punch -- and the illegal smile and the glowing eyes show a guy who wouldn't be doing anything else than what he's doing right now: beating the shit out of someone while getting whomped himself.

Brawling can get a bit gladiatorial in the Dub, as the WHL is known. When Matt Summerfield of the Swift Current Broncos took Boogaard down a peg by whupping him in early 2000, he ripped Boogaard's name off his jersey and threw it into the crowd.

The fights are more theatrical than they are in the NHL, too. A compilation video Boogaard's brother made (complete with "Eye of the Tiger" soundtrack) shows several versions of a quintessential WHL fight: Boogaard and an opponent jaw at each other, back off until they're 20 feet away, and then dramatically throw down their gloves and helmets.

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