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Back in October, I wrote this brief post about anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s comments on the role of the Viking “berserker” (vicious fighters who went into a rage / trance before battle) as a deterrent against violence. In a comparative literature course I taught last fall, the concept of the berserker as a form of social deterrent came up again and again; students identified powerful and mysterious figures in many of the various works we read (ranging from Macbeth to the short fiction of Borges and Louise Erdrich’s novel Four Souls) as fulfilling a berserker-like function in their social groups. All of this has kept the concept at the forefront of my own thoughts as well, and I, too, have started to consider what forms modern-day “berserkers” might take.

One answer fairly jumped off the screen at me when I came across an article on Derek Boogaard, the professional hockey player who was found dead in his apartment back in May of 2011, at the age of 28. I’m not a major hockey fan, but I did grow up in Minnesota, I received my B.A. from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, which boasts multiple Division I hockey championships for both men and women’s teams, and I’ve been to a handful of NHL games (all of them Minnesota Wild games, although Boogaard was not on the team at the time). I appreciate the skill and dedication necessary to play the game. I’ve also taught a number of hockey players here at my current institution (and they have all been top notch students — excellent writers, focused, and highly disciplined in all aspects of their work). In fact, I see hockey as being the last of the “major” team sports that many people play simply for love of the game. Very few make it into the NHL, and even when they do, the compensation — while often very lucrative — is nothing compared to that given to a basketball, baseball, or football player.

Be that as it may, what intrigued me about John Branch’s three-part profile of Boogaard in the NY Times was the clear similarity between the role of the Viking berserker and the hockey “enforcer.” Enforcers are unique individuals, in both the general world of competitive sports as well as within the game of hockey itself.And they are popular, at least within the hockey community, as Branch notes: “The enforcer, sometimes mocked as a goon or euphemized as a tough guy, may be hockey’s favorite archetype. Enforcers are seen as working-class superheroes — understated types with an alter ego willing to do the sport’s most dangerous work to protect others. And they are underdogs, men who otherwise might have no business in the game.” The enforcer’s job is simply to beat the living daylights out of the strongest, most intimidating player on the other team, and, if necessary, to provoke other players into fighting as well. The result is two-fold: the enforcer’s teammates gain a valuable psychological advantage over the other team (“If I’m too aggressive in my playing style, their enforcer will pound me into the ice”) and dangerous (read as “high scoring”) opponents are eliminated from playing for at least a few minutes, if not the entire game. It’s the first result that obviously links the most closely to the research of Dunbar and others that I discussed in my previous post.

Branch’s articles deal with the psychological and physical toll that playing the role of enforcer exacted on Boogard, and as such, it is a moving and even hauntingly elegiac portrait of a man who literally fought his way out of a lifetime of poverty and into the most elite ranks of the sport he loved. But, particularly in the second segment, Branch also demonstrates the powerful role the enforcer has as a deterrent against violence directed towards members of his own team. In fact, Boogaard’s ferocity makes him a prime example of just how successful / effective a particular enforcer can be in this capacity. His presence on the ice was sometimes all it took to keep the other team in check.

For Viking berserkers, Dunbar notes, there was always a limit point, a moment at which those he protected determined that he was a liability, and joined together to eliminate him. Although Boogard’s tragic death took a different form, his mood swings and apparent drug addictions were linked, post autopsy, to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is similar to alzheimers, and stems from head trauma inflicted during fights. Branch observes that this would likely have led him to “middle-age dementia.” In short, Boogaard — born with a passion for hockey, dead set on playing in the NHL, yet not skilled enough in puck handling, passing, shooting, or even skating to succeed as a player at that level — carved out a place for himself by being the most ferocious, the most violent, the most focused enforcer on the ice, which was no small feat. Yet, as research into the prevalence of CTE among NHL enforcers suggests, the clock may well have started ticking the very first time Boogard won a fight on the ice.