Enforcer's family vs. the NHL

In the fifth week of his second attempt at in-patient rehabilitation from a prescription pain pill addiction, Derek Boogaard told his counselors that he wanted to leave the treatment center to attend his sister's graduation, according to a timeline presented by his family's lawyers.

Worried about a relapse, his counselors were not happy with Boogaard's plan. He had resisted their efforts and refused to participate in some of their programs. The best thing they could say about Boogaard's time in treatment was that he was "indifferent" about his recovery. An NHL physician assigned to monitor Boogaard refused to approve the trip.

Ignoring their guidance, the 6-foot-7, 265-pound enforcer left the Authentic Rehabilitation Center (ARC) in Los Angeles and traveled to Minneapolis where he had been a fan favorite, where his addiction had begun, and where he had an apartment. From there, he and his family planned a few days later to go see his sister, Krysten, graduate from the University of Kansas. After detoxification and a period of near-total abstinence from the pills, known as "opioids," his level of tolerance for them had decreased significantly, according to experts consulted by ESPN.com.

Soon after he arrived in Minneapolis, Boogaard scored some Percocet and some Oxycodone, two of the opioids that, like Vicodin, produce an exquisite buzz for addicts. Like many addicts who return to opioids after a period of sobriety, the family believes Boogaard forgot about his lower tolerance and took his customary quantity in search of the desired high. It was a fatal error. He was found dead in his apartment less than 24 hours after his arrival in Minneapolis.

Boogaard's struggle with addiction to opioids and his death from an accidental overdose offer a look at the fastest growing addiction in the U.S. and at one of the nation's leading cause of accidental deaths. In 2010, the most recent year with complete statistics, drug overdose deaths killed more people than auto accidents in the U.S. More than 16,000 of these deaths were from opioid relapses and overdoses, compared to just over 4,000 in 1999. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which monitors health trends, classifies opioid addiction as an "epidemic" that, together with heroin (another opioid), has killed 125,000 Americans in the last decade.

The lawsuit filed Friday against the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman describes what the family thinks happened in Boogaard's final days. In the filing and in court, the family's lawyers will provide detailed examinations of Boogaard's life, his addiction, his death and the roles and duties of the NHL, its drug program, and its physicians, in the tragic sequence of events that led to Boogaard's death in May 2011. Spokesman Frank Brown said the NHL would not comment on the lawsuit.

Filed in state court in Chicago by Corboy & Demetrio, one of the nation's leading personal-injury law firms, the lawsuit will give Boogaard's family members an opportunity to review and analyze what happened to their son and their brother as they face the challenge of placing the responsibility for his death on the league.

The league's misconduct, according to the lawsuit, includes providing Boogaard with excessive quantities of opioid painkillers and repeated failures to curb his addiction, and to help him find a way to sobriety.

Although the league will respond to the Boogaard family's claims with suggestions that Boogaard was personally responsible for his health and for his sobriety, the attorneys for the family have some powerful ammunition. They will show that team doctors and dentists failed to maintain proper records of the drugs they were prescribing, allowing Boogaard to move from therapeutic doses to recreational use of opioids

His first rehab attempt had been at The Canyon in Malibu, Calif., before the 2009-10 season. A year later, Boogaard signed with the New York Rangers. Like any recovering addict, he had been on a program of total abstinence from opioids and had discussed addiction issues with the team during the contract negotiations. But the Rangers' team physicians wrote 17 prescriptions for 366 pills after Boogaard fractured a tooth early in the season, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit suggests that the prescriptions were the result of a failure to maintain proper records on Boogaard and his history of addiction.

The doctors "should have known," according to the lawsuit, that Boogaard, as an enforcer who suffered more injuries than other players, had "an increased risk of developing addiction to prescription medications." He was especially vulnerable to pain and to addiction from the concussions and subconcussive hits on the head that are part of the life of the enforcer. The lawsuit lists the hundreds of pills that team physicians ordered for Boogaard during his seasons with the Wild and Rangers.

More powerful as a legal theory than improper medical records and what the doctors "should have known" is the family's reliance on a drug rehabilitation program that the NHL established before Boogaard entered the league yet failed to follow as his addiction grew into a serious problem.

The NHL established its "Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health" (SABH) program in September 1996 without input from the players' union. The four-stage program provides for increasing levels of supervision and suspensions without pay. Although Boogaard was enrolled in the program at the request of his family, the suit states, the league never enforced the suspensions that the SABH required.

As the result of multiple relapses, known as "slips" in the world of addiction and treatment, Boogaard should have been in Stage 3 with a six-month suspension without pay when he departed the ARC treatment center for the graduation. In the earlier stages, he should have been suspended during his time in rehab and would have been allowed to return to his team only with the approval of an NHL physician. Would a six-month suspension have made a difference? Would it have pushed Boogaard from his indifferent attitude toward sobriety into a more receptive frame of mind?

The league's adoption of SABH and its failure to follow the provisions that the league itself formulated give the Boogaard family powerful evidence to present to the jury that will decide whether the NHL is in any way responsible for Boogaard's death. Thomas Demetrio, who has produced some of the largest jury awards in Illinois history, will argue for the Boogaard family that once the league undertook to provide assistance for addiction, the league was obligated to do it correctly and in accordance with the league's own procedures.

Is the NHL responsible for the addiction and death of an enforcer who scored three goals and had 66 fights in 277 games? Will the league acknowledge even partial responsibility? The Boogaard family, frustrated and angry with the league's conduct, wants to know. The family is asking important questions in its lawsuit, questions that go beyond the NHL and its responsibilities. The answers to those questions might tell us something important about the epidemic of opioid-related deaths and what can be done about them.