FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1By: Bruce Berlet

It seemed appropriate that rain fell as hundreds of family, friends and hockey teammates, opponents and officials filed in and out of the chapel for the private funeral of Derek Boogaard on Saturday.

The New York Rangers were well represented at the funeral of their left wing/enforcer who was found dead in his apartment on May 13. Rangers president/general manager Glen Sather and assistant GM/assistant coach/Connecticut Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld led about 40 team officials, players, trainers and support staff who were among those at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Depot in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, where Boogaard’s father Len, brother Ryan and two uncles had trained.

The Rangers’ contingent arrived from opposite sides of the continent. About a dozen players, including captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury, former Hartford Wolf Pack players Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Artem Anisimov, former Rangers and Hartford Whalers wing Brendan Shanahan, trainers and several officials and staff traveled from New York on the team plane early Saturday morning. Sather and his hockey staff flew in from La Quinta, Calif., where they held organizational meetings this week at the GM’s home to discuss player signings and prepare for the NHL draft June 24-25 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Coach John Tortorella, who had knee replacement surgery two weeks ago, could not attend because he has not been cleared to fly. He participated in the meetings via an Internet video connection.

Rangers scout Doug Risebrough, who was Boogaard’s general manager with the Minnesota Wild, remembered the man known as “The Boogeyman” as a dedicated player who was working hard to improve himself. Risebrough said opponents on the ice steered clear of Boogaard, one of the game’s most feared fighters, but people liked being around him off the ice because of his love of life.

“Boogy became a fan favorite, not only because of his physical play, his hits, his fights,” Risebrough said. “He was working hard. The fans could see the improvement, and everyone was cheering for him. They also knew about his charity work. They also felt the benefit of the work that he did for the Rangers, the Wild and later on his own charities with military families.”

Risebrough recalled a charity ball hockey game when the 6-foot-7, 280-pound Boogaard played with young children half his size.

“Derek had a way of attracting people,” Risebrough said. “He had a way of comforting people, a big man with a soft heart.”

Others who attended the funeral included dozens of other NHL players, including many from the Wild that drafted Boogaard in the seventh round in 2001, as well as Wild owner Craig Leipold, GM Chuck Fletcher and those in the team’s training staff. Those unable to be in Regina’s oldest building watched the service on a giant screen in a nearby auditorium.

Boogaard’s sister, Krysten, was the only family member who addressed the congregation.

“While Derek’s life was extinguished too early, it will continue to burn brightly for all of us who are privileged to know him and love him,” said Krysten, an accomplished basketball player and scholar at the University of Kansas, where he class will graduate Sunday morning.

While Ryan Boogaard followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the RCMP, Aaron emulated his late brother by becoming a hockey player whose priority is to defend his teammates.

“When I think of the definition of a man, I continue to think of my brother,” Aaron, who played with the Central Hockey League’s Laredo Bucks, told the Regina Leader-Post. “He feared no one and loved everyone. Derek put other people ahead of himself. He was selfless in his hockey and selfless in his personal life.”

The Hannepin (Minn.) County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed Friday that the 28-year-old Boogaard died from an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone toxicity. The native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, had been found in his Minneapolis apartment a week earlier by his brothers, Ryan and Aaron. His death was related to taking medication for pain. The drug, oxycodone, has warnings not to mix with alcohol that could cause severe injury or death. It is also considered an addictive drug, a narcotic pain reliever similar to morphine.

The New York Post reported last Saturday that Boogaard spent his final days in the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Program. The same day, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that when Boogaard missed most of the Wild’s training camp in 2009 and the first two weeks of the season under the guise of a concussion, he entered Stage 1 of the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program.

Friday night, the Boogaard family released a statement through the NHLPA thanking everyone for their thoughtfulness.

“We would like to express our appreciation for the outpouring of love and support for our family during this difficult period as we grieve the loss of Derek, our son and brother,” the statement said. “We are deeply saddened by this unimaginable loss, but we are grateful for the expression of support that has given us strength as we go through this tragic time.

“It is very comforting for our family to know that while Derek’s life was far too short, he had a great impact on many people who he came into contact with. We are proud that Derek was able to live his boyhood dream to play in the National Hockey League. We are even more proud of that fact that Derek was dedicated to making a difference in his adopted communities of Minnesota and New York City through his countless hours of charitable work.

“Early (Friday) we received the results of Derek’s toxicology report at the time of his accidental death. After repeated courageous attempts at rehabilitation and with the full support of the New York Rangers, the NHLPA and the NHL, Derek had been showing tremendous improvement but was ultimately unable to beat this opponent. While he played and lived with pain for many year, his passion for the game, his teammates and his community work was unstoppable.

“Our family would like to thank the New York Rangers, the Minnesota Wild, the National Hockey League Players’ Association and the National Hockey League for supporting Derek’s continued efforts in his battle. Derek will be greatly missed and will never be forgotten by his fans, friends and teammates, and especially by us, his family. We respectfully ask for continued privacy as we grieve the loss of Derek.”

Since Boogaard’s death, his family decided to donate his brain to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Encephalopathy to help study the effect of hits to the head in sports. He missed the final 52 games of the regular season and the playoffs because of a concussion sustained in a fight with Ottawa Senators defenseman Matt Carkner on Dec. 9. It was his seventh fight in only 22 games with the Rangers, who signed him to a four-year, $6.5 million contract on July 1, 2010 after playing 255 games in five seasons with the Wild. Boogaard was on NHL injured reserve after sustaining the concussion but had begun skating on his own in mid-March and joined his teammates in optional morning skates before leaving the Rangers with a week left in the regular season to receive treatment and get counseling.

Earlier this year, Boston University revealed Bob Probert, another former left wing and enforcer, suffered from the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Probert died of a heart attack last July at 45. Reggie Fleming, an enforcer in the 1960s who played before helmets became mandatory, also had CTE.

Wild fans held a memorial service for the extremely popular Boogaard last Sunday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. More than 300 family, friends and former teammates remembered Boogaard as a tough guy on the ice but a gentle giant off it.

“Derek’s legacy will live with us every day,” Ryan Boogaard told the gathering. “And for any of you that knows him or who have met him, no matter how briefly, we know that you, too, will be touched by the light that was Derek.”

Boogaard is survived by his two brothers, sister Krysten, half brother Curtis and parents, Len and Joanne. In lieu of flowers, his family requested donations be made to Defending The Blue Line, a non-profit charitable group whose mission is to ensure children of military members are afforded every opportunity to participate in hockey. Throughout his career, Boogaard tried to make a difference in the communities he played, taking part in numerous charitable endeavors in Minnesota and New York.

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.”

The Boogaard family would like to see their son’s legacy live on by supporting military kids and the game he loved. Donations can be made to: Defending The Blue Line, c/o Boogaard Booguardians Memorial Fund, 1206 N. Frontage Road, Suite B, Hastings, Mn. 55033. Donations can also be made at www.DefendingTheBlueLine.org.

RANGERS NOT INTERESTED IN IMMOMEN

Former Hartford Wolf Pack and Rangers center Jarkko Immonen isn’t going to keep a Whale player from possibly earning a spot on the NHL team next season.

Before the Rangers hierarchy held their organizational meetings, Schoenfeld said via email that Immonen would be “part of the discussion” after being a major reason that Finland won its first gold medal in the World Hockey Championships in 16 years last Sunday in Slovakia. (May 15)

But after the meetings ended Friday, Schoenfeld emailed stating the Rangers have “no interest” in Immonen, who had a tournament-leading nine goals in the World Championships after two successful seasons in Finland and two in Russia after not being re-signed by the Rangers in 2007. Immonen re-signed with Ak Bars Kazan on May 14 after getting 21 goals and 17 assists in 53 games with the Kontinental Hockey League team last season.

FORMER WOLF PACK PLAYERS SEEMINGLY EVERYWHERE

Immonen is one of more than 200 former Wolf Pack personnel still involved in playing, coaching, administrating, scouting or being part of training staffs.

Hockey aficionado Gerry Cantlon of Waterbury, who has covered the Wolf Pack/Whale since the franchise moved from Binghamton to Hartford in 1997 after the Whalers left for North Carolina, compiled a list of 206 individuals still involved in hockey.

Cantlon’s list starts with arguably the best player in franchise history, center Marc Savard, who started his first two seasons (1997-98 and 1998-99) with the Wolf Pack before joining the Rangers and then being traded to the Calgary Flames during the 1999 draft. Savard excelled for 11 NHL seasons, the last five with the Boston Bruins, before being forced to the sidelines with career-threatening, concussion-like symptoms that started with a cheap-shot, blindside hit by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Cooke on March 7, 2010.

Center Brian Swanson, who played his first four pro games with the Wolf Pack in 1999, is with the Alaska Aces, who are playing Kalamazoo for the ECHL title under coach and former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson.

Many former Wolf Pack players are now in Europe, including all-time leader in points, goals, power-play goals and game-winning goals Brad Smyth, who played in Northern Ireland and Italy this season. The most interesting might be goalie J.F. Labbe, who backstopped the Wolf Pack to their only Calder Cup in 2000, left wing/enforcer Donald Brashear, Mathieu Benoit and Maxime Daigneault, all of whom are in the League de North American Hockey known for its fighting.

Those closest to home are Ken Gernander, coach of the Whale after being a player and assistant coach, and Todd Hall, an assistant coach at Hamden High, his alma mater.

Cantlon noted wing Fedor Fedorov, who was rarely pleasant while in Hartford, apparently isn’t getting along well in his native Russia either. He has played for seven teams in six years in the KHL.

AHL HEADED BACK TO NEWFOUNDLAND?

If the Atlanta Thrashers are sold and moved to Winnipeg as the Toronto Globe and Mail reported would happen as soon as Tuesday, then the Manitoba Moose, the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate in Winnipeg, will relocate to St. John’s, Newfoundland for next season, according to a report in the St. John’s Telegram.

While the Moose admit there are several contingency plans in play, no agreement has been made with St. John’s, which hasn’t had an AHL franchise the past six years. The Toronto Maple Leafs used to have their AHL affiliate in St. John’s before relocating to Toronto and becoming the Marlies. An announcement about the relocation of the Moose to Mile One Centre is reportedly set for 1 p.m. Friday, but the Moose denied that.

The deal is contingent upon the Thrasher relocating to Winnipeg, which lost its NHL team, the Jets, when they moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes 15 years ago. While the Moose are currently the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, the new franchise in St. John’s reportedly will be the farm team of the new Winnipeg team and be the property of True North Sports and Entertainment, which is working with Atlanta Spirit to formulate a deal to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg. Ironically, the Maple Leafs franchise that lasted 14 years at Memorial Stadium and Mile One Center played its final game in Winnipeg on April 30, 2005, when the Moose eliminated St. John’s from the Calder Cup playoffs.

Though NHL officials immediately denied the Globe and Mail report, it couldn’t dampen the euphoria of most Winnipeg hockey fans. About 50 fans gathered in downtown Winnipeg Thursday night to celebrate the report of respected columnist Stephen Brunt that a press conference would be held Tuesday in Winnipeg with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in attendance.

That might be rushing matters a bit because NHL officials usually don’t like to make a major announcement while the Stanley Cup playoffs are going on. But the move seems logical considering the Thrashers have had among the lowest attendance in the NHL for years and lost more than $20 million this season.

Though NHL officials immediately denied the Globe and Mail report, it couldn’t dampen the euphoria of most Winnipeg hockey fans. About 50 fans gathered in downtown Winnipeg Thursday night to celebrate the report of respected columnist Stephen Brunt that a press conference would be held Tuesday in Winnipeg with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in attendance.

That might be rushing matters a bit because NHL officials usually don’t like to make a major announcement while the Stanley Cup playoffs are going on. But the move seems logical considering the Thrashers have had among the lowest attendance in the NHL for years and lost more than $20 million this season.

Plus, The Globe and Mail is owned by the Thomson family, and David Thomson, one of the richest men in the world, is a partner in True North Sports and Entertainment. True North and Atlanta Spirit reportedly are in negotiations about a potential sale, and Brunt said the Thrashers were True North’s intended target for purchase all along. In fact, Brunt said the NHL board of governors approved the sale several months ago and was just waiting for the purchase agreement to be ironed out between True North and Atlanta Spirit. The NHL also denied that idea.

AEROS SEEK CLINCHER – AGAIN

The Houston Aeros will try to clinch the AHL’s Western Conference playoff title again Sunday, but for the first time it will be on home ice.

After three one-goal wins, the Aeros lost 8-1 and 4-2 to the homestanding Hamilton Bulldogs on Wednesday and Friday nights. But the Aeros get another chance to face the Eastern Conference champion Binghamton Senators in the Calder Cup finals when they host the Bulldogs Sunday at 6:05 p.m. (EDT). Game 7, if necessary, would be Tuesday night in Houston. The Senators never trailed in a four-game sweep of the Charlotte Checkers that ended Wednesday night.

Of the 122 teams in the AHL’s 75-year history to trail 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, the Bulldogs are just the 15th to force a Game 6. And only two teams have rallied all the way back from that deficit to win the series, the Rochester Americans against the Cleveland Barons in 1960 and the Adirondack Red Wings against the Hershey Bears in 1989. In the finals, the Americans lost in five games to the Springfield Indians, who won their first of back-to-back titles, and the Southern Division champion Red Wings lost in five games to the New Haven Nighthawks, who had earned the fourth and final playoff berth in the Northern Division.

After twice falling behind by two goals Friday night, the Aeros got within 4-3 when former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Jed Ortmeyer scored with 9:58 left in the third period. But Andrew Conboy sealed the Bulldogs victory with an empty-net goal with 1:10 to go.

The Aeros got a crucial shorthanded goal at 8:22 of the third period from Ryan Russell, the Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2005 who was never signed before being traded to the Montreal Canadiens on May 31, 2007 for a seventh-round pick in that year’s draft. Russell has three goals and five assists in his last four games after getting four goals in Hamilton’s first 14 playoff games.

Former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Nigel Dawes leads the Bulldogs with 12 goals and six assists in 17 playoff games. His 12 goals have tied Jason Ward’s team record for a postseason set in 2003.Despite playing in only 66 AHL regular-season games with the Bulldogs and Chicago Wolves because of call-ups to the Canadiens and Atlanta Thrashers, Dawes had 41 goals, one less than league goal-scoring champion Colin McDonald of the Oklahoma City Barons. McDonald, a Wethersfield native and son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald, had scored only 34 AHL goals in his first three pro seasons with the Springfield Falcons after being a second-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2003 out of Providence College.

Aeros captain Jon Salvatore, a South Windsor native, has four goals and three assists in 15 playoff games after getting a career-high 28 goals and 61 points while playing in all 80 regular-season games. The Aeros are trying to reach the Calder Cup finals for the first time since 2003.

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