Former NHLer DJ King comments on physicality of hockey

by Phil Ambroziak

When Meadow Lake area resident D. J. King signed a contract in 2003 to play for the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League (NHL), he knew what was expected of him.

“There are only so many roles in the NHL,” he said. “As a big guy, it was easy to play the enforcer role. You always play to your strengths and that’s what got me and so many other players in the door. I knew when I signed the contract why I was there and I was definitely OK with it.”

King’s comments came following the news Joanne Boogaard and members of her family had filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the NHL this week, blaming the league for brain damage suffered by her son, former Minnesota Wild and New York

Rangers player Derek Boogaard. Also considered an enforcer on the ice because of his size, Boogaard died in 2011. After his death, he was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain ailment caused by too many blows to the head. His family also claims the NHL was responsible for the player’s addiction to prescription painkillers.

King, who had at least six on-ice altercations with Boogaard over the years, admitted hockey is a rough sport, but said every player goes in knowing what’s involved and what the risks are.

“It’s like any job, you have to adapt if that’s what you want to do in life,” he said. “I can’t say anyone’s ever been forced to take on more of a physical role. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. I knew it would be a tough role, but there are a lot of tough jobs out there – not just in hockey – and I knew the consequences.”

Although he did not suffer any major injuries during his six years with the Blues and two additional seasons with the Washington Capitals, King did require shoulder surgery at one point, a procedure that resulted in him being placed on prescription medication.

“I took painkillers for a while, but only until the pain in my shoulder was under control,” he said. “I couldn’t function when I was on them and I suppose that’s the high people who are addicted look for.”

In terms of the physicality of the game, King said most players should be able to address day-to-day aches and pains with over-the-counter medication. He also said Boogaard had back problems, but isn’t sure if this is what led to the 28-year-old’s dependence on painkillers.

“He was a big kid, but look at basketball players or any big athletes – their bodies aren’t designed to take that kind of pressure,” he said. “Eventually something has to give.”

In recent years, concerns about violence in sports, particularly hockey, have made headlines, primarily because of incidents such as Boogaard’s death. King, however, believes hockey is just as hard-hitting now as it’s always been.

“It (sports-related injuries) has been an ongoing concern for the past six or seven years – since concussions seemed to become more prevalent,” he noted. “But, I believe the injuries have always been there. More and more of them are just being diagnosed now because of new technology. Society in general has taken on more of a cautious role, which is good, but that’s probably why there’s so much more controversy about it now than in the past.”

As for the issue of fighting in hockey, King said there’s always a method to what appears to some people to be nothing more than madness.

“The question about fighting in hockey always comes up and I always tell people it’s not a boxing match,” he said. “It was my job to go out there, get in some forechecks and help lay the puck down deep. There are so many ways to play physical, but you’re always there to protect your teammates and you’re always watching for when your team needs a spark. We don’t consider ourselves enforcers as much as we do energy players. We go out there and help give our team that drive to win when things start to fall a little flat.”

King played with the Meadow Lake Stampeders this past season before heading to California to play with the Ontario Reign of the East Coast Hockey League earlier this year. Ontario was knocked out of the ECHL playoffs in the second round, but the experience allowed King to continue playing the sport he loves and to be closer to his brother, Los Angeles Kings player Dwight King.

“I’m not sure what I want to do going forward,” he said. “I still felt the hunger to play and I’m going to continue to train in case I play somewhere this fall, but if I don’t, I know I’m ready to move on from hockey. There’s so much more to life than just hockey and everyone has that option. If you want to change something, go ahead and change it.”

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