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Hockey world searches for answers in Boogaard death

TORONTO (Reuters) - The hockey world was digesting the sudden death of New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard with many starting to wonder whether it was possibly linked to a fight-filled National Hockey League career.

The 28-year-old forward, one of the game's most feared fighters who was nicknamed "The Boogeyman," was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment on Friday. The cause of death has not been determined but foul play is not suspected.

While autopsy reports are not expected for at least two weeks, sports talk shows and Twitter were abuzz on Saturday with debate about whether Boogaard's role as a hockey tough guy might have been a factor in his death.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that Boogaard's family had donated the player's brain to Boston University researchers who are studying brain disease in athletes.

"The news that we have lost someone so young and so strong leaves everyone in the National Hockey League stunned and saddened," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement.

"The NHL family sends its deepest condolences to all who knew and loved Derek Boogaard, to those who played and worked with him and to everyone who enjoyed watching him compete."

Boogaard, who was selected in the seventh round of the 2001 NHL Draft, spent five seasons with the Minnesota Wild starting in 2005 before signing a four-year deal with the Rangers in July 2010.

At 6-foot-7 (2-meter) and 265 lb (120-kg), Boogaard was one of the NHL's most feared fighters, known more for his fists than his scoring finesse. In 277 career games, he scored only three goals but accumulated 598 minutes in penalties.

His final game was in December where he suffered a shoulder injury and a concussion during a fight.

Concussions have been sports hot button issue in recent months, particularly in the NHL.

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the league's biggest name, missed the finals months of the 2010-11 season after he sustained a concussion in January.

HEAD TRAUMA

Tributes from around the hockey community poured in as word of Boogaard's death spread.

Before the start of Game One of the Eastern conference final between the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, fan observed a moment of silence.

"It was devastating news," said Rangers Marian Gaborik, who was team mate of Boogaard's in Minnesota and New York. "He was one of the very best at what he did.

"Every team would have loved to have him, whether on the ice or off the ice as a great team mate."

"He's just the type guy who would be there for you whenever you needed him."

For all his ferociousness on the ice, Boogaard was described as a "big teddy bear" away from the rink donating his time to charitable causes.

In New York, he set up "Boogaard's Booguardians" and hosted military families at Rangers home games.

Georges Laraque, the Montreal Canadiens enforcer and another member of the NHL's fight club, rated Boogaard as the one of the best at his craft, who enjoyed his work.

"He's the toughest guy in the league," Laraque told the Toronto Star. "There's pressure that comes with that. But he was ready to take it.

"Contrary to a lot of other guys, he likes fighting and he's mean and tough.

"He was going to be a big threat, he was going to be ready. You don't think when you're 28 years old something like that was going to happen. It was a total shock to me."

(Writing by Steve Keating; editing by Frank Pingue/Greg Stutchbury)