Column: Brian Boyle inspires with fight against cancer

New Jersey Devils Brian Boyle (11) attempts to screen Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson (41) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, in Ottawa, Ontario. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press via AP)

Brian Boyle has always been one of the NHL’s toughest customers

Over his career, he has always been in the face of opponents, laid heavy hits and stepped up for teammates. His 6’ 7’’,  245 pound frame, along with an angry mustache that serves as the cherry on top, makes him one of the most intimidating, towering figures in the league. But it was not until this season, his 12th in the NHL, that we truly discovered the strength of this beast.

Boyle, a Massachusetts native, signed a two-year contract worth $2.75 million with the New Jersey Devils over the summer, expecting to find his usual place as a locker room voice and role player. Little did he know that he was in store for the most tumultuous season of his career.

In September, blood work during preseason screening revealed that Boyle had a form of cancer which was later determined to be chronic myeloid leukemia. This of course changed everything for Boyle, as it put his season and life in check. At first, the doctors were uncertain of the extent of the cancer, leaving Boyle uncertain of what was to come in regard to playing the game he loves.

Boyle’s time with the Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs brought plenty of challenges, but never anything like this.  

Boyle worried about balancing treatment with gelling with his new team. He would need time to get acclimated to a new setting and be conditioned to play his best. The leukemia impacted his energy and stamina, making it difficult to rise up to the necessary playing level. An enlarged spleen prevented him from taking the ice as well.  

But Boyle worked earnestly to miss as little time as possible and show the entire hockey community that he would not let the cancer beat him. He missed just 10 games to begin the season as he received treatment and regained energy.

Boyle made his season debut on Nov. 2 in Vancouver where the Devils faced the Canucks. Poetically, it was Hockey Fights Cancer Night at the arena as Boyle helped New Jersey to a 2-0 win.

November became a special month for the 32-year-old. The NHL annually dedicates the month to the Hockey Fights Cancer initiative. During this time, each team hosts a Hockey Fights Cancer Night where they help create awareness and raise money to fight the disease. The cause has taken storm throughout the hockey community with players, coaches and fans expressing who they fight for and telling their powerful stories.

With his emergence into the Devils’ lineup so soon after his diagnosis, Boyle instantly embodied the campaign’s purpose and became the face of it. In his second game back, the Edmonton Oilers made him a focal point of their Hockey Fights Cancer Night as he participated in the ceremonial puck drop.

Just under a week later, he scored his first goal of the year, one that brought him to tears as his teammates mobbed him. He said later that it was the first time he had ever cried after scoring a goal. His purpose with the team is geared towards the less sexy plays, such as winning face-offs, being a net front presence and winning puck battles. As a role player who fought so hard to be on the ice, the goal was a triumph against the cancer. It was only the beginning of more to come.

Since then, Boyle is having one of the best seasons of his career, contributing 11 goals and six assists in addition to his typical role. When Ray Shero, New Jersey’s general manager, acquired him in the offseason, he could not have imagined that Boyle would add this much offense along with his physical play. Boyle has stepped up as a clear leader of the team, which is crucial for a squad as young as the Devils.

Boyle’s November concluded with another inspiring goal on the Devils’ Hockey Fights Cancer Night, putting a fitting close on an amazing month. In December, he continued his torrid play with a stretch of eight points over just four games. This was highlighted by a shootout winner against the rival New York Rangers. In the fourth round of the shootout, he beat Henrik Lundqvist through the five hole. Goaltender Cory Schneider, who was also teammates with Boyle at Boston College, then stopped Kevin Shattenkirk to give the Devils the victory. In a matter of just two months, Boyle had multiple iconic moments for his new club.

Boyle was rewarded for his strong play with the first all-star game selection of his career. As he has been all season, Boyle was the center of attention for the festivities in Tampa Bay. Having played with the Lightning for three years, a tenure that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, it was an emotional weekend. He received the loudest ovation of any all-star upon introduction, even surging past those for current Lightning stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

The weekend was especially emotional for Boyle with his two-year-old son Declan on his mind. Declan needed to have an emergency procedure earlier in the week, making him the center of Boyle’s thoughts despite all the attention and chaos surrounding Boyle. Boyle revealed that along with his own illness, he had been dealing with his son’s ailment, which doctors originally thought could be Sarcoma, a rare type of cancer. Luckily the illness turned out to be Arteriovenous Malformation in Declan’s jaw, which is still troublesome but at least much more easily treated.

With the way Boyle has overcome everything the year has brought, he is an all-star in all forms of the word. He has fought through his own difficulties and watched his son struggle, yet he has still risen as a leader for the Devils and NHL.

As Boyle’s storybook season carries on, he hopes to lead New Jersey to its first playoff appearance since 2012. They currently sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division, meaning Boyle could be the center of many more proud moments in the near future.

“I’m living a fairy-tale life,” Boyle said in an interview. “It’s a tremendous blessing for me and I won’t take it for granted. Every year I seem to love it a little more.”


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.