By Michael Russo
October 22, 2005
ST. LOUIS – Len Boogaard is delighted to see his son, Derek, being used more as a complete player than just a brawler by Wild coach Jacques Lemaire.
“He was used in one role when playing junior, and we know what that was,” the elder Boogaard said after driving 22 hours to watch his son make his NHL debut earlier this month.
In case you don’t know what that was:
“A circus act,” Wild assistant general manager Tom Lynn said.
“An absolute gimmick,” Wild GM Doug Risebrough added, disgustedly. “Like he wasn’t even a human being.”
For as long as he can remember — especially when he played in Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League — Boogaard has been used exclusively as a fighter.
Sure, the 6-7, 260-pound rookie is an intimidating presence, already is earning a reputation as one of the NHL’s most petrifying heavyweights and is quickly making Wild free-agent pickup Andrei Nazarov expendable, but Boogaard, 23, always believed he could be used in other ways.
“He catches my eye more in practice with little things that he does,” Lemaire said.
Lemaire has gradually increased Boogaard’s ice time. He’s told to create space, bang bodies, stand in front of the net and drive the net.
Of course, Boogaard, taken 201 slots after Thrashers superstar Ilya Kovalchuk in the 2001 draft, is still the team’s pugilist. But as he showed when scoring his first NHL goal in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over San Jose and as he showed when setting up the tying goal last week in a loss to Vancouver, Boogaard can do other things.
Medicine Hat didn’t see it that way.
“He’s come a long way,” Risebrough said. “He’s got a long way to come, but you can’t begin to believe where this guy’s come from. I saw him play as a junior player where they played him like he wasn’t a player.
“So all these years, he’s been basically told, ‘We don’t want you to play and we don’t think you can play. We just want you to be out there to fight.’ “
Boogaard was like a marketing tool — sell tickets, rile up and entertain the crowd. And if frightening the competition was a side effect, good for him.
Lynn, shaking his head, said, “One or two shifts a game, he was told to fight.”
Three years ago, Boogaard returned to Medicine Hat as an overage player but was cut. At an NHL game in Calgary, Boogaard ran into Risebrough.
“He said, ‘Nobody wants me,’ ” Risebrough recalls. “I said, ‘You deserve a good thing. I’m going to sign you to a three-way contract, you’re going to go to the minors and work like hell.’ “
Boogaard reported to Louisiana of the East Coast Hockey League. The “Boogie Man” became a fan favorite for his scraps, of course, but more important, then-IceGators coach Dave Farrish was instructed to turn Boogaard into a player.
“He was a big project, but he developed a nice work ethic, worked his tail off and earned his ice time,” said Farrish, now an assistant with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. “Obviously, he had some entertaining moments in the minors. Fans loved him and they loved to chant his name, but he wasn’t going to develop by sitting on the bench.”
Farrish handed Boogaard off to the coaching staff in Houston, the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate in 2003. In two years with the Aeros, he worked closely with then-coach Todd McLellan and totaled 466 penalty minutes.
“A lot of people didn’t think I’d make it to the NHL, but I always had confidence that if I practiced hard enough, I eventually would,” Boogaard said.
He still knows his size is what will keep him in the NHL.
“Some guys just by looking at the size of me, they just turn around and skate to the bench,” he said.
His father, a constable in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, has come to accept the bruising role but still worries.
“He’s encountered a number of injuries with his hands, and he’s going to have repercussions years down the road,” Len Boogaard said. “But what he’s accomplished to get here, the obstacles and hurdles he’s overcome, I’m very proud. I’m mostly proud that he has a different persona off the ice than what you see on the ice.”
The Wild is satisfied also to see such a longshot make it.
“He’s made himself a player when nobody else thought he would,” Risebrough said. “There will be a lot of people who saw him play junior that will say, ‘He’s playing in the NHL?’ “