Lawsuit Against The NHLPA By The Late Derek Boogaard’s Family Signals Legal Concern For The NHL

By:  John Fabiano, Intern (Twitter:  @Fabs5180)

Tragedy struck the NHL last year when 28-year-old power forward Derek Boogaard was found dead due to an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers.  The “Boogyman” was one of the most feared enforcers in the league and injuries sustained from fights reportedly contributed to his depression and analgesic drug addiction.

Boogaard played for the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers, and as a member of both teams he was checked into the NHL’s drug rehabilitation center in Southern California.  His drug addiction was well documented, but doctors from both teams allegedly continued to write him prescriptions for painkillers, antidepressants, and sleep medications.

When he died, Boogaard had $4.8 million remaining on his NHL contract.  His parents, working with the NHLPA, had the intention of filing a grievance against the Rangers to receive the unpaid portion of the contract after the team informed them that the contract was void upon Derek’s death.  The basis of the grievance was that the Rangers contributed to his death by allegedly overprescribing him medication when they were well aware of his struggles with addiction.

Roman Stoykewych was the NHLPA union representative who educated the Boogaards’ about their rights in regards to compensation from Derek’s contract.  He sought medical records from Minnesota and New York team doctors but had trouble obtaining the documents.  According to the Boogaard’s lawsuit, it was not until after the deadline to file the grievance passed that Stoykewych informed the Boogaards that the filing would have been futile because it was obvious that the Rangers were not going to honor the remainder of Derek’s contract. 

The Boogaards have now filed a lawsuit against the NHLPA alleging that the union failed them in their attempt to file the grievance.  Not only is the lawsuit seeking the $4.8 million that remained on Derek’s contract, but also $5 million in punitive damages.   The union has 30 days to officially respond to the suit, but has already stated,  “[W]e are confident that there is no meritorious claim that can be made against the NHLPA in regard to Derek’s tragic death.”

Whether the Boogaards will be able to recover any of this money is yet to be seen, but if it goes forward, if depositions reveal that team doctors were prescribing painkillers to a known drug addict, tremendous speculation about the league’s concern for its players’ safety would be raised. 

Shortly after Boogaard’s death, two other NHL enforcers, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak both died from apparent suicides.  Similar to Boogaard, both suffered from severe depression, possibly caused by the repeated blows to the head NHL enforcers receive each time they fight.  After his death, Boogaard’s brain was donated to the Sports Legacy Institute, which studies the brains of dead athletes who competed in high contact sports.   It was found that he suffered from the degenerative brain condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which has been found in many NFL players that suffered numerous concussions throughout their careers. 

The NFL is currently facing lawsuits from thousands of former players claiming that the league acted negligently and concealed information linking concussions to long-term mental health affects.  Similarly to the NFL, the NHL could find itself facing a bevy of lawsuits in the future.  Fighting, concussions, and medications have always been a part of the game of hockey, and former players may soon realize that they have a cause of action against a league that put their mental health at risk. 

Almost all of the NHL’s current media attention is focused on the lockout, so there has not been much attention given to the Boogaards’ lawsuit against the NHLPA.  Once that dust settles, it will be interesting to see if the outcome of this lawsuit encourages former players, especially enforcers, to bring similar suits against the league.

Concussion and player safety concerns have changed the culture of the NFL.  Big hits that went unpenalized not too long ago are now warranting fines and suspensions.    The dangerous physical aspect of the NHL could cause the league to head in a similar direction, and it’s not completely out of the question that the league could ban fighting in its attempt to protect player safety and avoid damaging lawsuits.

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