Harvard and the Boogeyman

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

They circle warily and eventually dive in. As many punches miss as land, but as the crowd whoops and the refs watch carefully, moving sticks and gloves out of the way, the players flail away. Fighting on skates is a tough balancing act, so one eventually falls -- 30 seconds is considered a marathon bout -- and the refs then jump in to break it up.

"You always want to get the first two punches in," Boogaard says. "You'll usually do good if you get the first two in, and… ummmm…that's about it, really. There's not a lot of strategy."

The two fighters usually skate off little the worse for wear. "It gets pretty tiring, actually," he says. "My hand gets banged up during the season pretty good."

The arena scene only minutes before game time: 
Aeros fans are loud but few in number.
The arena scene only minutes before game time: Aeros fans are loud but few in number.

When Boogaard was traded from Regina to Prince George, he enhanced his tough reputation. He scored just two goals while racking up 439 penalty minutes.

"I've definitely had my ear open about Boogaard since he was with Prince George," says David Singer, who runs the Web site www.hockeyfights.com, where fans trade videotapes and argue about the game's brawlers. "Quite a lot of fans in Minnesota are looking forward to his arrival."

(Those fans have since been teased further by Boogaard's ESPN highlight two years ago, which actually isn't one of his proudest moments. At a rookie tournament, he went full bore at an opponent against the boards. The guy ducked, and Boogaard shattered the glass and ended up outside the rink.)

But even though he was beginning to attract attention, the move to Prince George took the 16-year-old about 1,000 miles from home. "That was kinda tough," he says. His parents were divorcing; his size made him a target for ridicule; he was rebelling in school.

Teenagers in the WHL live with local residents, who board them in exchange for tickets and some expense money. Boogaard became close to Mike and Caren Tobin, who housed him one summer after Boogaard's teenage anger -- and hefty food bills -- saw him go through four "billets" in less than a year.

"He was gangly and shy as hell, but an honest kid, a really good kid," says Mike Tobin, who still hears from Boogaard regularly. "At that level, if you're not the perfect player that they're grooming, they can play some real head games with you. You can get messed around with."

The mind games can be the refined semi-harassment from coaches that shows up in all sports, but which can be honed to perfection by the fanaticism of Canadian hockey fans. Coaches, knowing it's their stars who will help them advance up the ranks, can use their biggest weapon: cutting off the ice time of lesser players who are equally eager to move up and out.

"I don't think he was really given the opportunity to do something other than be an enforcer," says Doug Lister, who coached Boogaard at Medicine Hat and is now with the Canadian national team. "He was a player whose other skills were overlooked because he's such a big guy…Sometimes Canada doesn't do a good job developing the late bloomers."

Tobin and a teammate talked Boogaard out of quitting, although Tobin couldn't convince him to stay in school. "He was a pretty headstrong kid and he didn't like school. It was an authority thing. He was a smart kid, but he hated the educational process," Tobin says.

He's undergoing another kind of educational process now, though.

"You can't have the traditional enforcers of the '70s anymore, the classic tough guy who just went out and just looked for the other tough guy," says Wild assistant general manager Lynn, who drafted Boogaard in 2001. "Derek has done a very good job learning to play and getting the mental aspects of the game, and being physical on top of that."

Boogaard knows he's not Wayne Gretzky reborn. "If it's a 3-2 game, I know I'm not going to be out there," he says. "I'm not an offensive player, and everyone knows that." Boogaard might not even dress for the game if the opposition doesn't have an enforcer.

As for his chances to advance, "I don't think he's a prospect -- he's just a guy to fight and to protect the team's other players on this level," says Kevin Oklobzija of the Hockey News, who's covered the AHL for 19 years.

Lynn, though, thinks he has a chance to make it. But so much depends on circumstances no one can predict, like who gets injured on the parent team.

"It's a crapshoot," says Boogaard's father. "The chances of making it are like winning the lottery. But Derek knows there are no guarantees and he just keeps working hard at it."

And even if he doesn't make it, Len Boogaard says, he's already exceeded his family's expectations. "All the kids he grew up with that were more skilled than him -- he's the only one who's gotten this far…He's head and shoulders above where we thought he would ever be."

Boogaard lives with his girlfriend, likes watching a lot of movies and The Simpsons, but he loooves hockey. He hopes to coach after his playing days.

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