Brian Boyle’s season: leukemia, a son’s surgeries, and playoff hockey with the Devils
NEWARK — It’s always come naturally to Brian Boyle to think about others first since, growing up as one of 13 siblings, there were always so many others to think about. Still, no one could have blamed the Devils center for focusing on himself for once after being diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia.
Yet, when the Devils center looks back on his whirlwind season, his own cancer battle is almost an afterthought. Instead, what scarred Boyle emotionally were the sleepless nights he and his wife, Lauren, spent at Boston Children’s Hospital as their soon-to-be-three-year-old son Declan underwent repeated procedures for an arteriorvenous malformation in his jaw.
“He’s still kind of going through it and that’s been the hard part, too,” said the 6-foot-6 Boyle, estimating his son has had to endure at least six operations. “My stuff was what it was and it was fine. It was kind of mild. He’s OK but it’s just hanging over your head. He hates it. He’s figured it out. He hates the place. He hates going to get checked out. It’s been really difficult.
“Right now, it’s under control so it’s not like a panic,” Boyle added. “I don’t have to check my phone every 20 minutes.”
An arteriovenous malformation is an abnormal tangle of blood vessels connecting arteries and veins, which disrupts normal blood flow and oxygen circulation. The tangle can cause veins to rupture and oxygen depletion to surrounding tissues. Declan Boyle suffered clotting and severe pain.
The Devils were eliminated in the first round by the Lightning, losing the decisive Game 5, 3-1, on Saturday afternoon at Tampa.
“The way he’s approached this difficult thing, it’s really remarkable,” said Devils defenseman John Moore, who had been Boyle’s teammate with the Rangers. “I think you’d never know. He never talks about it. I finally had to ask him what’s going on. I find it inspiring. The league is hard enough. The schedule is hard enough and here he is, battling cancer and he’s also the first guy in on scrums.
“I can’t imagine what he’s going through,” Moore added. “And then to have his son, too, it’s tragic. But it sounds like everything is progressing well.”
On June 20, Boyle will likely culminate a season that saw him play in his first All-Star Game — receiving several thunderous ovations in Tampa, where he played for the Lightning from 2014-17 — by accepting the Masterton Trophy for dedication and perseverance at the NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas.
“That was quite an honor just to be nominated for that,” said Boyle, who was treated for CML with medication rather than undergoing chemotherapy. “Everybody goes through stuff in this league, perseveres through something. But it’d be nice to recognize my wife. With everything that’s happened this season, I don’t know if I’m playing at all without everything she’s done. She’s carried quite a heavy burden.”
Family and faith have always been the guiding factors for Boyle, who grew up in Hingham, Massachusetts as the seventh of Artie and Judy Boyle’s 13 children. In 1999, Artie Boyle was given a 5 percent chance to live after being diagnosed with kidney cancer that eventually spread to his lungs. Yet, the following year, after he traveled to a pilgrimage site in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the apparition of the Virgin Mary had once been reported, Artie Boyle’s cancer disappeared and he’s been healthy to this day.
The Devils signed Boyle, who helped the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 and the Lightning get to the Cup Final the following season, to a two-year, $5.5-million deal to provide leadership in the organization’s rebuilding efforts. His dressing room stall at Prudential Center is purposely between rookies Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt.
“He brought accountability, he brought that in spades,” Moore said. “Whether that’s playing cards or how you dress or how you’re preparing. He’s been someone that a lot of these young guys have really looked up to.”
Boyle, centering the fourth line and contributing on both special teams, helped the Devils, last in the Eastern Conference the previous season, reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
In Game 3 against the Lightning at Prudential Center Boyle, pressuring deep in the Lightning zone, was on the ice as the Devils scored their first home playoff goal since June 9, 2012. In a chippy game, Boyle also had to be separated from Mikhail Sergachev, with the TV cameras catching Boyle apparently taunting the Lighting defenseman by screaming, “I’m going to kill you.”
In Game 4, Boyle was again in the midst of a nasty scrum early in the third period, prompting the home crowd to chant his name.
“He’s been a leader and he brings playoff experience,” said Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid, of Farmingville. “His story is tremendous, too, to overcome all that. He’s so modest. He just does all the right things.”
“He’s a feisty player out there,” added Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh, also Boyle’s teammate with the Rangers. “He’ll do anything for his teammates. You don’t want to get drawn into his physical play and let it get under your skin but he can be a difference maker out there.”
All of this seemed pretty distant on Sept. 19 when Boyle announced on a teleconference he had been diagnosed with CML, four days after reporting to Devils’ training camp and being sent for bloodwork.
“You just want to let him know how much support he has,” McDonagh said of the reaction around the league. “Friends, family, former teammates, current teammates, you just let him know you’re thinking about him and you’re behind him. It puts things in perspective a little bit.”
Boyle had felt fatigued throughout the summer but had chalked it up to the strain of first moving his family from Tampa and then from Hingham to New Jersey.
Boyle expressed hope on the teleconference he would be ready to play in the season opener and wound up missing just the season’s first 10 games as he compiled 13 goals and 10 assists.
This despite commuting to Boston at times for his son to undergo treatment, sometimes not making it back to New Jersey until close to game time. After some games, he was still wearing a hospital band around his wrist.
He never accepted general manager Ray Shero’s standing offer to take some time off.
“Every time I’ve gone, I’ve been really scared for his well-being,” Boyle said. “Every time I’ve come back it’s because we know he’s OK. I would wait until he woke up, to see him. That’s my first priority.”
Fourteen months in the life of Brian Boyle:
Feb. 27, 2017 – Traded from Lightning to Maple Leafs
July 1, 2017 – Signs a two-year, $5.5-million deal with Devils minutes after free agent market opens at noon, his fifth NHL franchise
Sept. 15, 2017 – A wan-looking Boyle reports for the first day of Devils training camp. After off-ice testing at Prudential Center, he is sent to a nearby hospital for further bloodwork
Sept. 19, 2017 – Boyle announces he has been diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia on a conference call with the media. Boyle expresses hope he will be ready for the start of the regular season
Oct. 7, 2017 – Boyle continues to skate on his own as Devils open regular season with 4-1 win over visiting Avalanche
Oct. 22, 2017 – Boyle practices with his teammates for the first time
Oct. 30, 2017 – Boyle accompanies Devils as they embark upon a three-game swing to Western Canada
Nov. 1, 2017 – Boyle logs 15:19 in his Devils’ debut, a 2-0 win at Vancouver
December, 2017 – Boyle begins disclosing that his son, Declan, 2, has been sick. Boyle eventually reveals Declan Boyle is suffering from an arteriorvenous malformation in his jaw that will require multiple operations
Jan. 25 – NHL names Brian Boyle as an All-Star replacement, subbing for injured teammate Taylor Hall
Jan. 27-28 – Boyle receives thunderous ovations from his former home crowd at Tampa Bay when he is announced for the Skills Challenge on Saturday night and the All-Star Game the following day
March 27 – Boyle announced as the Devils’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for dedication and perseverance to ice hockey
April 5 – Devils clinch their first playoff berth since 2012 as they beat the visiting Maple Leafs, 2-1. Boyle finishes the regular season with 13 goals and 10 assists in 69 games
Saturday – Boyle announced as one of the three Masterton finalists along with Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo and Hurricanes center Jordan Staal. Winner will be announced June 20 in Las Vegas