FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1 By: Bruce Berlet

The email that arrived from the New York Rangers late Friday night was stunningly eerie.

It simply started:

NEW YORK – The New York Rangers are very saddened to announce the passing of Derek Boogaard.

“Derek was an extremely kind and caring individual,” New York Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather said. “He was a very thoughtful person who will be dearly missed by all those who knew him. We extend our deepest sympathies to his family, friends and teammates during this difficult time.”

How is that possible, I thought? Just a few hours earlier, I had typed the name Roman Lyashenko, a crafty center who joined the Rangers with Martin Rucinsky in a 2002 trade deadline deal with Dallas that sent Manny Malhotra and Hartford Wolf Pack wing Barrett Heisten to the Stars.

Lyashenko, a second-round pick of the Stars in 1997, played the rest of the 2001-02 regular season with the Rangers and then joined the Wolf Pack for the playoffs. The following season, he had 23 goals and 35 assists in 71 games with the Wolf Pack and was scoreless in two games with the Rangers before getting a goal and an assist in two playoff games in Hartford.

Less than three months later, on July 7, 2003, Lyashenko committed suicide in his hotel room while on vacation with his mother and sister in Antalya, Turkey. He was 24 and left a note apologizing for killing himself.

“Roman was a quality individual who had a positive impact on everyone he touched, both on and off the ice,” Sather said of Lyashenko at the time.

“Roman was a quality young man who we were privileged to have in our organization for three years,” Stars general manager Doug Armstrong said.

Oh how familiar those words sounded Friday night.

Lyashenko was buried in his native Yaroslavl, Russia, on July 12, 2003, and a picture of him has been in the office of the Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale equipment man ever since. In a strange coincidence, Lyashenko’s death was followed shortly by the suicide of Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Trevor Ettinger, who might have been his opponent in the AHL the following season.

Then on Oct. 13, 2008, Alexei Cherepanov, the Rangers’ first-round pick (17th overall) in 2007, died in Chekhov, Russia, after he collapsed on the bench during a Kontinental Hockey League game with Avangard Omsk, the team that former Rangers star Jaromir Jagr has played for the last three seasons. The 19-year-old Cherepanov didn’t sign with the Rangers and never played in the NHL.

Now this. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Boogaard, an affable enforcer who missed most of last season because of a concussion and shoulder injury, is found dead in his Minneapolis apartment at 28. Boogaard had spent the past week in Los Angeles with his brother, Aaron, a sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2004 who played for Laredo of the Central Hockey League last season. In a text message to the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Thursday, Boogaard said he had just met with a public relations firm and planned to start a Twitter account. He was excited to return to Minnesota, where he was going to be joined Friday by his older brother, Ryan, a Royal Canadian Mountie in Saskatchewan, Canada.

The Rangers gave no details on Boogaard’s death, but the Star Tribune reported he was found dead in his home by members of his family, presumably Aaron and Ryan. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner was conducting an autopsy Saturday, and spokeswoman Carol Allis said authorities probably wouldn’t release results for at least two weeks.

Minneapolis police Sgt. Bill Palmer said authorities received a report of a man not breathing shortly before 6:15 p.m. Friday, and fire officials were the first to arrive and determined he was dead. Palmer said authorities do not suspect foul play, but the police examiner’s homicide unit and the medical examiner’s office are both investigating. Palmer said the medical examiner will determine the final cause of death.

“I don’t think we have any answers as to what happened or why it happened,: Ron Salcer, Boogaard’s agent, said Saturday.

Allis said in cases where there are no obvious signs of physical trauma or an obvious immediate cause of death it can take time for authorities to receive results of laboratory tests. Allis also said the medical examiner’s office doesn’t anticipate it will release preliminary autopsy findings until all results are in.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” goalie Niklas Backstrom, who sat near Boogaard in the Wild dressing room for four years, told the Star Tribune. “It’s really hard. Unreal guy. Great friend and an awesome teammate. Just a really big teddy bear. Outside the rink he didn’t want bad for anyone.

“If you don’t know him, if you just know him by what he does on the ice, you don’t know how great he is. Smiling every day. At the rink, I don’t think he was mad at anyone ever. I just want to send my condolences to Boogey’s family.”

Defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who played with the Rangers and Whale last season before sustaining a season-ending broken finger when hit by a shot on March 5, was the first of Boogaard’s former Rangers teammates to react on Twitter, saying, “Boogy, you will be missed! Condolences to the Boogaard family. The world lost an amazing friend and teammate!”

Other Twitters included:

Rangers wing Brandon Prust: “At a loss for words. I’ll miss my roomy Derek Boogaard. You will be missed by everyone. Great friend and teammate.”

Columbus Blue Jackets right wing Scottie Upshall: “Saddened to hear the news about the Boogie man. One of the NHL’s tough guys life & career cut far too short.”

Phoenix Coyotes enforcer Paul Bissonnette: “Had to call my folks after hearing that awful news. Derek Boogaard you were pure nails on the ice and an even better person off. R.I.P.”

Boston Bruins defenseman Steve Kampfer: “RIP Derek Boogaard. Tragedy to lose someone so young. Thoughts (and) prayers with your family and friends. The hockey world will miss you!”

On Saturday morning, Rangers captain and Trumbull native Chris Drury issued a statement that said: “On behalf of all Derek’s teammates, I would like to say that he was a great friend and a great teammate and that we are all going to miss him dearly. This is a tragic loss for the hockey community. All of our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.”

The Rangers themselves provided quotes from several members of the team on Boogaard as well.

Marian Gaborik said, “I found out immediately, like right away…it was late at night here…I couldn’t believe it.  It was weird because I just couldn’t believe it.  It’s really sad, a young guy like that.”

“It was devastating news.  I played with Boogey for a long time in Minny and then in New York.  He was a great guy. We got along together great.  We helped each other out on the ice and off the ice.  We were very close. I tried to help him along in New York, and we had a very good relationship.  It’s just very sad.”

“He was one of the very best at what he did.  Every team would have loved to have him, whether on the ice or off the ice as a great teammate.”

“He was a year younger than me, and you could see that he improved so much.  But he always was such a calm guy, got along with everybody.  We had a lot of good times together.  He was a really easy going guy, really caring. We talked pretty much about everything.  He’s just the type guy who would be there for you whenever you needed him”

“We spoke before the World Championships.  We were in touch a lot.  He was focusing on coming back, training every day.  He was really looking forward to coming back in great shape and prove that he’s the best at what he does.  He was really looking forward to that.  He was always so positive and optimistic. “

Prust elaborated on his earlier post on Twitter. “I was stunned by the news. “I am still in shock.  It keeps hitting me off and on all day as I’m driving home.  Though he was a fighter on the ice, he was definitely a gentle giant off the ice.  He was just a real good guy, a team guy all the way.  I’ve been looking at some of the silly pictures I have from when we were roommates and it just hits me what a good guy he was.  I still can’t believe I am referring to him in the past tense.”

Brian Boyle spoke more of Boogaard the person, “He was a great person.  He really was.  He was such a caring guy, an unselfish guy.  He put himself in front of bullets for the guys.  I had some great talks and great laughs with him in our car rides into the city.  I will remember him fondly, and I think we all will.  There are so many great things Boogey brought to our team and to our lives.  For however long you knew him, it was a blessing because on the ice he was an amazing teammate, and off the ice he was an even better friend.”

Sean Avery, never at a loss for words, was right to the point, “As big of a man as Derek was, his heart was even bigger.  I hope that his family, friends and most importantly, those who didn’t know him, understand what a great teammate he was and how much he meant to us all.”

Boogaard, the Wild’s seventh-round pick in 2001, signed a four-year, $6.5 million contract with the Rangers on July 1, 2010 but appeared in only 22 games last season, getting one goal, one assist and 45 penalty minutes while participating in seven fights. One of hockey’s most feared brawlers, Boogaard sustained a concussion in a fight with Ottawa Senators’ defenseman Matt Carkner on Dec. 9 and missed the last 52 games of the regular season.

Boogaard had a difficult time recovering as it took nearly three months before he could resume skating. In March, he said he had never experienced anything like it. He rarely left his West Side apartment in New York for weeks, had to wear sunglasses outdoors because he was bothered by sunlight and took solace in walks around Central Park. But with about a week left in the season, the Rangers sent him home to Minnesota because of unspecified issues. But Sather remained loyal to Boogaard when he said the signing would become positive for the Rangers.

Boogaard, a native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, had two goals, 12 assists, 54 fights and 544 PIM in 255 games with the Wild from 2005-10 before signing with the Rangers. He, rather than high-scoring Marian Gaborik, received a hero’s welcome when they returned to Minnesota for the first time on Nov. 20. A crushing Boogaard check set up the Rangers’ first goal in a 5-2 victory, but that was one of his few highlights in an otherwise troubling season.

“The Minnesota Wild organization sends our deepest sympathies to the family of Derek Boogaard,” the team said in a statement. “Derek was a fan favorite during his five seasons with the Wild and will be greatly missed here in Minnesota and throughout the NHL. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Boogaard family during this tragic time of loss.”

Throughout his career, Boogaard tried to make a difference in the communities he played, taking part in numerous charitable endeavors. He was a supporter of the Defending the Blue Line Foundation, a non-profit charitable group whose mission is to ensure children of military members are afforded every opportunity to participate in hockey.

While with the Rangers, he created “Boogaard’s Booguardians,” hosting military members and their families at home games. He also made numerous appearances with partner organizations of the Garden of Dreams Foundation, the non-profit charity that works closely with all areas of Madison Square Garden, including the Rangers, Knicks, Liberty, MSG Media, MSG Entertainment and Fuse “to make dreams come true for kids facing obstacles.”

But this was another nightmare for the Rangers family and again emphasized how precise life is. And another big, tough guy with a big league heart was gone.

RIP, Derek.

RANGERS, FLYERS TO PLAY IN 2012 WINTER CLASSIC

On a much happier front, the Rangers will play the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2012 NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

The NHL’s fifth outdoor game, traditionally played on New Year’s Day, will be on Monday, Jan. 2, because the Philadelphia Eagles are scheduled to play the Washington Redskins at the Lincoln Financial Field on Jan. 1 – if the NFL isn’t on sabbatical. NBC-TV, which has a scheduled NFL game that night, does not want a conflicting schedule between the two sports.

It will be the first Winter Classic game for the Rangers and second for the Flyers, who lost 2-1 in overtime to the Boston Bruins at Fenway Park on Jan. 1, 2010. With the Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings having taken part in past Winter Classics, the Rangers were the only Original Six team from the United States that hasn’t played in an outdoor game. But their top prospects on the Whale played under the lights on Feb. 19 against the Providence Bruins, so it will be interesting to see how many of them are in Philadelphia in early 2012.

There has been talk since the old Yankee Stadium was torn down that the NHL would like to have a Winter Classic in the Bronx, but college football’s Pinstripe Bowl makes that impossible until at least the 2014-15 season. But the Rangers have played outside previously. In the 1991 preseason, they played in the Caesar’s Palace parking lot in Las Vegas against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings, losing 5-2 on a temporary rink. … There’s another opening for a possible Whale graduate on the Rangers after left wing Alex Frolov signed a three-year contract with Avangard Omsk. After signing a one-year, $3 million, free-agent contract with the Rangers on July 27, Frolov had only seven goals and nine assists in 43 games before sustaining a season-ending right knee injury on Jan. 8 that required surgery after St. Louis Blues forward Brad Winchester fell on his leg. Frolov had had 168 goals and 213 assists in 536 games in seven seasons with the Kings, who selected him in the first round (20th overall) in 2000. … The Rangers begin their organizational meetings Monday in La Quinta, Calif. Six days of meetings – with golf tossed in on the side – will focus on player signings and the NHL draft June 24-25 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., site of the Frozen Four in April. Whale left wing Carl Hagelin and his Michigan teammates lost 3-2 in overtime in the NCAA final to Minnesota-Duluth, which won its first national championship. Hagelin and fellow young forwards Roman Horak and Jason Wilson have been signed late in the season or the offseason, and the Rangers acquired 19-year-old Swedish center Oscar Lindberg from the Coyotes for 20-year-old left wing Ethan Werek on May 8. … Right wing Michael Graebner has signed a five-year, $15 million contract with the New York Islanders, the longest deal that general manager Garth Snow has given a player since the offseason of 2008 when he signed defenseman Mark Streit to a five-year deal. Graebner, the Vancouver Canucks’ first-round pick (14th overall) in 2006, had a team-high 34 goals and 18 assists in 76 games as a NHL rookie last season after being claimed off waivers from the Florida Panthers on Nov. 5.

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