If you’ve been on the New York Times’ website at all this week, or even the Internet, chances are you’ve seen or heard something about our latest Notable Narrative, “Punched Out: the Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.”
The multimedia project tells the story of Derek Boogaard, a 28-year-old player found dead in his apartment by family members in May. Going beyond the well-done print piece and galleries of images, the Times has also produced a series of video interviews and – most notably – a triptych movie on Boogaard’s life.
Each installment runs about 12 minutes. The first chronicles his awkward childhood and his adolescent realization that the only way he would get to play hockey was to learn to use his fists on the ice. The second follows his unlikely entry into professional hockey and rise to popularity in the NHL. And the third traces the toll of his career: injuries and addiction that cascaded into a death spiral.
The storytelling technique is chronological and classic, following the arc of Boogaard’s life in three stand-alone sections. Boogaard isn’t romanticized – the filmmakers present him as someone who became an addict and was willing to hurt other people very badly in exchange for a lot of money. Yet there’s something glorious in watching him score a goal – a feat not commonly accomplished by an enforcer – and seeing the arena explode. This moment shows the life he really wanted, a life that might have let him stay in the league and survive. But that life was not the life he got.
The visuals are stellar in their very mundaneness: The talking-head interviews with other enforcers and Boogaard’s family. The snippets of fight after fight, with spectators cheering in the background. The footage that has already aired on television, including some scenes we may even remember having watched before. We experience Boogaard’s life in part as a sports audience watching hockey footage, but also as an audience for a video that shows the price our interest exacted. While people who have never enjoyed hockey or been to a hockey game might not feel it, for sports fans the feeling of being caught between the two roles – the pleasure in watching the game, and discomfort over the toll that our pleasure took on Boogaard – lends a gripping tension to the Times video project.
The night the final video installment posted, I exchanged messages about the project with AP photographer and multimedia producer Evan Vucci. Asked why it impressed him, he wrote,
Anytime I look at a multimedia project online I go straight into critique mode – how was it shot – how was the editing, does the story flow, etc… Three minutes into the piece I forgot all about that and was engrossed in the story. I’m a HUGE sports fan – I’ve probably photographed hundreds of hockey games, and I’ve always assumed that fighting was just part of the game. This story changed my perception of something I thought I knew really well. I had never even thought to ask these questions. That is the key to engaging a viewer and making a powerful story.
There’s a devastating moment near the end during an interview with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, where he says that in the League “we don’t allow fighting. Fighting is punished.” And he points to the preliminary nature of the research into brain damage from hockey.
The finding of brain anomalies in dead players may still be an evolving story. But the Times video makes the link between Boogaard’s profession and his death more than clear, and underlines the central nature of fighting to hockey.
The story feels epic in part because of the stature that Boogaard attained before his dramatic, premature death. But the Times doesn’t go for the exposé or easy hit. Though the video raises questions, there’s no indictment of a single family member, coach or team. The Times is thinking bigger here, looking at the future, asking questions about human suffering and how willing we are as a society to deliberately cause it.