Sunday, December 28, 2014

Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch

Published October 1, 2014 by W. W. Norton & Company
Hardcover, 384 pages
Borrowed from library

(taken from

The much-anticipated debut from the Pulitzer Prize–winningNew York Times reporter, Boy on Ice is a moving human story and behind-the-scenes account of a life lived in the glare of sporting fame.

The tragic death of hockey star Derek Boogaard at twenty-eight was front-page news across the country in 2011 and helped shatter the silence about violence and concussions in professional sports. Now, in a gripping work of narrative nonfiction, acclaimed reporter John Branch tells the shocking story of Boogaard's life and heartbreaking death.

Boy on Ice is the richly told story of a mountain of a man who made it to the absolute pinnacle of his sport. Widely regarded as the toughest man in the NHL, Boogaard was a gentle man off the ice but a merciless fighter on it. With great narrative drive, Branch recounts Boogaard's unlikely journey from lumbering kid playing pond-hockey on the prairies of Saskatchewan, so big his skates would routinely break beneath his feet; to his teenaged junior hockey days, when one brutal outburst of violence brought Boogaard to the attention of professional scouts; to his days and nights as a star enforcer with the Minnesota Wild and the storied New York Rangers, capable of delivering career-ending punches and intimidating entire teams. But, as Branch reveals, behind the scenes Boogaard's injuries and concussions were mounting and his mental state was deteriorating, culminating in his early death from an overdose of alcohol and painkillers.

Based on months of investigation and hundreds of interviews with Boogaard's family, friends, teammates, and coaches, Boy on Ice is a brilliant work for fans of Michael Lewis's The Blind Side or Buzz Bissinger'sFriday Night Lights. This is a book that raises deep and disturbing questions about the systemic brutality of contact sports—from peewees to professionals—and the damage that reaches far beyond the game.

I couldn't not write a review about this book after I enjoyed it so, so much. Which makes me so unbelievably uncomfortable to say because this is a book that centers a lot around - to put it bluntly - this one person's death and the causes of it. It makes me uncomfortable for the same reasons Serial made me slightly uncomfortable. It just feels like creating a source of entertainment out of real life situations that maybe should not be molded for entertainment purposes? And this has nothing to do with the way John Branch wrote the story because I actually think he handled the topic with tremendous grace and respect (I will get into that later). It's more of a ME thing where I just can't quite get over that feeling of THIS REALLY HAPPENED. WHY AM I READING ABOUT THIS AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHY DID I ENJOY IT SO MUCH?

But as for the writing, like I said, I thought John Branch treated Derek Boogaard's story with tremendous respect.
He really took great lengths to do as much research as possible (which is also detailed at the back of the book) to create as realistic a portrait of Boogaard as possible and I thought he did a fantastic job. Every aspect of Boogaard's life was written really well and the progression of starting in the minor leagues and then moving up to the NHL and then moving from Minnesota to New York was done exceptionally. And the harder bits to read about that I'm sure were equally as hard to write about - the parts that really illuminated what Derek Boogaard had to suffer through - were written really well too. 

And it wasn't just like this happened and that happened, a lot of insight was put into it that sorta showed the reader what Boogaard might have been thinking about during this fight or this moment. Branch really built up this character that was incredibly three dimensional and this may sound so silly but I really ended up caring a lot for Derek and it was so hard to read through some of the passages about him getting into fights and having to deal with swollen knuckles or him screaming that he felt alone. 

It never occurred to me until this book just how hard it is to write a biography. Obviously you will never be able to get every single detail down but as a writer, it's up to you to sorta fill in those spaces and draw the information out and make it interesting for the reader and not just a dump of information. And again I think Branch did an excellent job here. I don't know if this is typical in biographies because I don't read many but there were chunks of moments that made up a chapter and while you'd think that'd be really choppy, the transitions were really well done.

But apart from creating a really strong and captivating storyline, Branch also provided a lot of background information on the history of hockey and the enforcer which was really useful during reading, just to have that extra knowledge. There are many things I know about like Taylor Swift or old Disney TV shows but hockey is not one of them so it was handy to have that extra information to have that added insight when reading about Boogaard's experiences as an enforcer.

Which leads me to say that I think fighting is incredibly dumb. But I guess I shouldn't say that, not when I don't have the appropriate background. I'm not a religious hockey fan so I don't understand the reasons why, for one person, fighting could be really enjoyable and actually critical for the game. I also just hate fighting in general, like I could never stand to watch boxing or wrestling or even football because all I'm thinking is people getting beat up and hurt and how is that something I'd want to watch? But after getting a closer look at just what the exact consequences are of fighting in hockey it makes me wonder, is it really necessary if it has such severe consequences on the players? But it also really illuminates just how dedicated these players are to their teams and most of all to their sport which is admirable regardless of the circumstances.

And the final thing I will say is that Branch drew attention to some issues in hockey - and sports in general - that I think are important? Like for example, CTE which I really don't know much about (some of you will probably know more than I do) but can apparently be derived from concussions or just blows to the head and will lead to eventual dementia among other things. There's not a lot of information about it so far but I definitely think it's something worth looking into to protect these athletes.

Another thing that was a little alarming that was brought to the forefront in Boy on Ice was drug abuse and how the NHL handles it. Now I don't want to point fingers because I know ZERO about this at all, I don't work with the NHL - this is all based on what I've read - but I feel like there's something so wrong about how the team doctors don't communicate with each other about prescriptions given and how pills that a player was known to be addicted to were still handed out and how multiple positive urine tests just seemed to be ignored and not done anything about? 

So there was a lot to think about with this book. It made me think A LOT and honestly, given everything, I think this was one of my favourite books of 2014, maybe the favourite book because I just can't think about anything else. It was just so utterly captivating and well written. 

John Branch did a fantastic job with this book. Derek's story was told in a very respectful tone but it was also incredibly fascinating and gripping and you can tell endless hours of research was put into this by how three dimensional and humanistic Branch's portrayal of Boogaard was which made the story hard to read at points because for me at least I found myself to care a lot about Derek and some parts were incredibly tough to read about. Branch also wrote in a way that was incredibly thought-provoking so I'd be thinking the entire time I was reading this book and even after finishing it now, I'm still thinking. Branch raises a lot of questions about hockey and the role of fighting in the game and CTE among other things. Overall just a really great book that I enjoyed a lot. Quite possible THE favourite book of 2014.

Hockey fans, I suppose. I think recommending non-fiction is a different thing though because it's hard to get through a book if you don't have any interest in the subject matter. So hockey fans.

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