by Clark Groome

When Derek Boogaard died at 28 from what was ruled an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol, his role as an enforcer in the NHL raised red flags that led to further investigation.

In a fascinating and frightening recent three-part report in The New York Times, Boogaard’s life and May 12, 2011, death were reported in exquisite detail.

In October, a report on the state of his brain from the prestigious Bedford VA Center in Bedford, Mass., announced that at the time of his death he was suffering from advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy, usually referred to as C.T.E. This disease, only confirmable after death, is the result of repeated hits to the head.

That is something that many athletes in both the NHL and the NFL face in the course of doing their jobs. When a hockey player’s job is to drop the gloves and fight his opposite number on the other team, he basically faces the same dangers as any other hockey player plus those of boxers.

Boogaard’s death, shocking and sad, was the first of three NHL enforcers’ deaths this past summer: Rick Rypien, 27, committed depression-driven suicide, and 35-year-old Wade Belak, 35, hanged himself, an act his family characterized as an accident.

Premature deaths of athletes playing hockey and football have become more common in recent years, or at least the connection between them and all those hits has become more apparent.

A 45-year-old football or hockey player’s brain looks under the microscope like that of an old man with Alzheimer’s.

While the science is still fairly young, indicators are all there that there is a connection between repeated head hits (either by accident or on purpose) and depression, substance abuse, memory loss, early dementia and premature death.

So how have the NFL and NHL reacted?

Both leagues say publicly that they want to minimize head trauma in their sports. Helmet-to-helmet hits and other collisions with an opponent’s head in the NFL get a flag, a penalty and in some cases a player tossed from the game.

Any number of penalty possibilities exist in the NHL to diminish the number of hits to the head, either by accident or by thugs who think that because the game is so fast that they can get away with “business as usual.”

But nothing has been done in the NHL to diminish fighting. The league apparently feels that fighting does two important things. For one, they say, it diminishes the tension, acts as a pressure valve and reduces the possibility that sticks will be used as weapons. It also pleases the fans’ blood lust.

There is evidence that part one of their reasoning has some validity.

As to part two: While North American fans like the fights, fans throughout the rest of the world – in other pro leagues, at college games and in the Olympics – where fighting is outlawed – still turn up in enthusiastic numbers. They get to see the sport in its purest and, arguably, best incarnation.

My guess is that after a while fight lovers at NHL games will cease missing them. I also find it hard to believe that people pay upwards of 100 bucks to spend about three hours waiting for an average of 60 to 90 seconds of fisticuffs.

What’s most appalling was NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s reaction. A long-time supporter of “letting the players settle it on the ice,” he noted, “it’s way too premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point.”

Whatever happened to “it’s better to be safe than sorry” when lives are at stake? This reminds me of how the leaders of the tobacco industry testified to congress that no incontrovertible evidence existed that smoking was bad for you.

Heads in the sand – hands in the cash drawer, methinks.

I really don’t accept the premise that fans will be lost if fights are eliminated. Passionate as the fans are, they’re passionate about the game. The fights are just, for some, an enjoyable bonus.

And then there’s the other half of the equation: the players who serve as enforcers. For the most part they are marginal offensive players whose only road to the NHL is as a fighter. They are low-paid kids who really love the game and generally – if they are to be believed – hate the role they’re in. They do it to be in the Show.

Perhaps the pay scale is backwards. Pay the fighters the most because the odds are increasingly clear that – like hazard duty pay in the military – they’ll have less time to spend it, either because they’ll be demented or dead.

Whatever the NHL does it should be done to benefit the players who are, after all, the real reason all those fans pay all that money to see all those games.

It’s time for the commissioner to get his head out of the sand and back on the ice where it belongs.