Will the Derek Boogaard Wrongful Death Lawsuit Be a Game-Changer for the NHL?

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Will the Derek Boogaard Wrongful Death Lawsuit Be a Game-Changer for the NHL?
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The wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Derek Boogaard could have a long-term impact on the NHL, its enforcers and the style of hockey that is played on a nightly basis.

Boogaard was found dead in his New York apartment in May 2011 of an accidental drug overdose. Boogaard, 28, had been an NHL enforcer who made his living by getting into on-ice fights and doling out punishment to opponents.

Boogaard played five seasons with the Minnesota Wild and one year with the New York Rangers. Throughout his career, the lawsuit claims that Boogaard was prescribed "thousands of pain pills" to help him cope with injuries and discomfort. Boogaard's family says the prescriptions continued even after the league learned the player was addicted to pain medication.

The family also makes the claim that Boogaard was not aware of the greater potential for injury that is often associated with NHL enforcers.

The last part of that claim may be quite difficult to prove. It seems quite apparent on its face that a player who tosses off his gloves and exchanges hard punches with an opponent knows he is going to be at risk to injury.

While NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL wasn't going to comment on the lawsuit, he did say the league would handle the litigation as a part of its day-to-day operations.

However, the case could have far-reaching implications. Paul Anderson, a Missouri lawyer who actively blogs about legal matters involving athletes, told ABC News that the league appears to be at risk in the case.

"It appears there was a total system failure on all parts," Anderson told the news organization. "That's going to be at the heart of this case. Why did they continue to supply him with drugs?"

Boogaard's death came in the same offseason that two other NHL enforcers passed away. Rick Rypien, 27, and Wade Belak, 35, also died in Aug. 2011.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Chicago, and the family is represented by attorney William Gibbs.

"Our focus is on a league level that the dispensing of pain pills can only really be controlled or seen from the eyes of leagues, and so they should be the ones to have a proper mechanism in place," Gibbs told ESPN New York reporter Katie Strang.

The league will undoubtedly argue that Boogaard and other players knew the risks they were taking by entering into employment with the NHL and taking on the position of enforcer. If any current or former players were to offer testimony on Boogaard's behalf, it would make the pending case that much stronger.

Gibbs contends that the league was indifferent once Boogaard had a relapse in his addiction to pain pills. "Instead of having something with meat to it, the league just kinda turned a blind eye to the relapse and gave, I think, him a false sense of feeling that this addiction was not a big deal when in fact it was a very, very big deal," Gibbs told Strang.

If the league does not believe a trial is in its best interest, a settlement offer could be forthcoming. However, if the case does go to trial and the Boogaard family wins, it could have wide-ranging implications on the future of fighting in the NHL.

The family did not ask for a specific dollar amount, but it is "demanding judgment against defendant, NHL, for a sum in excess of the minimum jurisdictional limit for the Law Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County."

Any trial is months or years away from proceeding. However, this huge storm cloud is hanging over the heads of the NHL's leadership and they have to be quite concerned.

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