By Jim Cerny
Although the voice on the other end of the telephone belonged to someone nearly half a world away, the pain in that voice still resonated as clearly as if that person were standing right next to me.
“This is just devastating news,” Rangers’ forward Marian Gaborik
said from his native Slovakia.
Gaborik, of course, was speaking of the sudden shocking death of his longtime friend, and teammate with two different organizations, Derek Boogaard on Friday night.
“He was a really easy-going guy, really caring,” Gaborik said of Boogaard. “He was such a calm guy and got along with everybody. We got along together great, helped each other out on and off the ice. He was just the type of guy who would be there for you whenever you needed him. It’s just very sad.”
There were several things that stood out to me when I spoke with Derek’s Rangers teammates on the day after his untimely passing, but none moreso than the flat tones in which their words were spoken. It was as if Derek’s death had zapped the life from his friends and teammates, as well.
It also struck me that no one I spoke with who knew Derek well mentioned his on-ice play first. Everyone chose to speak about what a kind, loyal, decent man he was -- “a gentle giant” according to Brandon Prust
, his road roommate with the Rangers this past season.
To those who did not know Derek past his fearsome on-ice reputation -- one buoyed by his 6-foot-7, 270 pound-plus frame and willingness to fight all of the top heavyweights in the NHL -- it might come as a surprise that he was such a soft-spoken, non-threatening person. He was a man with a quick smile who loved a good laugh.
“I texted the boys (on the Rangers) some pictures I had of (Derek) on my phone, silly things that he did while we were roommates, because looking at them made me smile and I wanted to share that with my teammates,” said Prust. “But it just keeps hitting me in waves. I still don’t believe we are even talking about him in the past tense. It’s just so tough to swallow, especially as I reflect back on the good times we had.”
|Derek Boogaard spends time with a youngster during a skating party for guests from the NYU Medical Center and the Starlight Children’s Foundation last November at the MSG Training Center. The children, many of whom were confined to wheelchairs, spent an afternoon with players. |
I shared with Prust that one of the first things I thought of when I heard the tragic news was a memory of sitting on the team plane across from Derek and showing him some silly article from a local New York tabloid which I had just read. Before I could finish my story, Prust cut me off and said, “And he gave you that little smirk and the low, deep laugh, right?”
Exactly, Brandon. Derek gave me that smirk from the side of his mouth which was actually his full-on smile. And yes, there was that low rumble that came from deep within that came out in an infectious laugh that made his other card-playing buddies on the plane look up and want to know what was so funny.
That’s the Derek I remember -- laughing, sharing in the camaraderie of his mates. And it is the kind of memory his buddies on the Rangers were quick to share, as well.
“There was so much more to him than just being No. 94, The Boogey Man,” said Brian Boyle
. “I remember our car rides, him driving me back to the city after practice, our long conversations. He was such a great guy, such a joy to be around. He was a great person and a great friend, and I just hope everyone remembers him that way.”
One of the more sad sidebars to Derek’s passing last Friday is the fact that he was unable to accomplish his goal of returning to the ice as protector of his Rangers’ teammates. It is a role he took great pride and responsibility in -- one that ultimately led to 589 penalty minutes in 277 career National Hockey League matches.
Derek missed the final 52 games of the 2010-11 season after suffering a concussion in Ottawa on Dec. 9. Teammates who spoke with him in recent weeks say that Derek was driven to get himself healthy and fit for September’s training camp, so that he could return to his enforcer’s role with the Blueshirts.
“He was focusing and training every day,” said Gaborik, who last spoke with the man he first befriended in the Minnesota Wild organization right before heading out to the World Championships. “He really wanted to come back in great shape and prove that he was still the best at what he does, and put the injury behind him. He was really looking forward to that. He was really enthusiastic and positive.”
|Derek Boogaard poses with 15-year-old Ryan McCarthy and his family during the McCarthys' visit to the MSG Training Center on Oct. 28, 2010. The big day for Ryan, a passionate Rangers fan who suffers from a chromosomal abnormality, was set up by the Garden of Dreams Foundation, one of many charitable organizations that Boogaard embraced |
Prust added, “A couple weeks ago we were talking about the fighting and he said ‘I’ll be there for you next year’. He really missed being in the dressing room with the guys and being on the ice with us, going on the road, all of that stuff. That’s what he really loved. He was just so positive and motivated to come back next year. It’s so sad he won’t be able to do that.”
To see the outpouring of love for Derek these past few days has been heartwarming and comforting at a time when there is little comfort in the passing of a 28 year-old man seemingly in the prime of his career and life.
There was a memorial for Derek put together by fans of the Wild outside Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center on Sunday, and remembrances in New York of a man who consistently showed his charitable side, be it with his work with The Garden of Dreams Foundation or with his own Defending the Blue Line endeavor. And there were platitudes arriving throughout the world of social media, including poignant heartfelt comments from one of his true on-ice rivals, the rugged Georges Laraque.
In the end, those of us lucky to have known Derek, even a little bit or for a short time, are left with some very on-the-mark words from one who knew him well.
“As a person, he was a great one,” remembered Boyle. “He was a caring guy, an unselfish guy. He would put himself in front of bullets for the guys. I will remember all the things he brought to our team and brought to our lives. However long you knew him, it was a blessing. On the ice he was an amazing teammate, off the ice he was an even better friend.”