TORONTO – Before the hockey starts, when the packed arena is silent, save for the national anthem singer, Mike Babcock will say a quiet prayer for Brian Boyle. He’s done so every game this season.
“Any time you hear the word cancer — when you get cancer, your whole family does — it’s a scary, scary thing,” says Babcock, whose mother was taken by the disease.
“Good for Boyler and good to see him back.”
The former Maple Leafs centre is back in Toronto Thursday but, more important, back in hockey, back doing what he loves. That the veteran is here draped in Devils clothing is a blessing.
Some hockey stories aren’t about hockey at all.
Boyle — a 32-year-old son and brother, father and husband — discovered he had chronic myeloid leukemia after a training-camp blood test in New Jersey. He had to drive to the hospital on his first day with his new team. Bad news hit like a locomotive.
“It allows you to get closer to someone quicker because it’s not a hockey situation. It’s a family situation,” says Devils coach John Hynes, who appreciates the strong communication Boyle has had with him and GM Ray Shero. “I think the relationship started off strong because of that. Now, to have him back with us, on and off the ice, he’s exactly what we need here.”
Ask New York. Ask Tampa. Ask Toronto. Ask Jersey. They all can’t speak highly enough of Boyle’s character.
What do you say to someone who’s just learned he has cancer?
Devils star Adam Henrique can’t imagine being in Boyle’s situation. He didn’t know how to approach his new teammate.
“Really, his attitude is what amazed me. He was still the loudest guy in the room, joking around, having fun, keeping the mood loose,” Henrique says. “It took the edge off for the whole group…. He’s certainly been an inspiration for us.”
Taylor Hall says Boyle’s battle with CML, a type of bone-marrow cancer largely treatable with medication, has reinvigorated his own appreciation for hockey.
“You appreciate your health a bit more, the fact you come to the rink every day to play a game. It puts everything into a different perspective,” Hall says. “It’s a real presence in our room.”
Even prior to his diagnosis, Boyle was a man of presence and conviction. His sentences, like his shifts, are loaded with intent. I distinctly remember the look on his face last April, during the checker’s brief tenure as a Toronto rental, when he looked up at the microphones and said, “It’s time we punch our ticket.”
Hours later, the Leafs secured a playoff berth. At that time, Babcock doubted they’d be in the post-season were it not for Boyle.
“It’s like jumping on a moving train,” says Boyle, his mind racing back to joining the Leafs at the trade deadline. “Guys like us have to get faster to try and keep up. I feel like I haven’t done that.”
The coaches spoke a different language, he’d been asked to shift back to centre after playing wing in Tampa, and he had a room full of kids to keep up with.
“I looked at William [Nylander] and Auston [Matthews] and Mitch [Marner] and how they handled themselves at 18, 19, 20—I was nowhere near that when I was their age. It was impressive,” Boyle says.
“It was a pretty cool experience to come in here and play in this market, this city—and playoff games. The reception I had from the guys and coaching staff was great. The fans were awesome, supportive.
“We had a blast. I didn’t look too far ahead.”
Look not too far back, to one week ago today. Boyle cuts hard to the Oilers net on Jersey ice and bangs home a rebound for his first goal as a Devil, as a cancer fighter. He raises his arms, unleashes the Bautista bat-flip of fist pumps, releases a cathartic scream, gets swallowed by hockey hugs, then looks skyward.
“I’ve never cried after a goal before,” Boyle told MSG in one of the best 30-second intermission interviews you’ll ever watch. “It’s a lot. It’s everything.
“These guys, my wife, my kids… they’ve been through a lot, too. My parents, my siblings… it’s a good feeling.”
Today in Toronto, Boyle talks at length about how people in hockey look out for one another.
Since his diagnosis, a flood of former coaches and teammates have reached out. Coaches and players he never met, too. Doug Weight. Commissioner Gary Bettman. This morning Boyle met Nicholle Anderson, wife of Senators goalie Craig Anderson, who’s fighting a rare type of head and neck cancer. He’s been tweeting support for retired NHL referee and Jersey resident Kerry Fraser, who was recently diagnosed with essential thrombocythemia, an incurable form of leukemia.
Boyle now chats regularly with star player-turned-broadcaster Eddie Olczyk, who is undergoing treatments for colon cancer.
“He’s just a phenomenal guy to talk to. His attitude, his positivity—it’s off the charts. He’s in a battle,” Boyle says. “Everybody has their own situation, but we’re all fighting the same fight.
“You can’t dwell on it too much or let it get the best of you. Cancer’s not going to fight fair, but we stand together, all of us. I’m part of a group now you don’t want to be a part of, but we support one another.”
Ironic how the interconnectedness of family, hockey and otherwise, has made Boyle feel like a lucky man in the throes of the worst fortune.
“It’s a competitive game and [nasty] things get said out on the ice, but it’s a much different ballgame when you’re off the ice. Guys care about one another,” explains Boyle. A mauve “Hockey Fights Cancer” patch is stitched on his Devils cap.
“I just know how fortunate I am, how I’m able to play. I want to make that happen for everybody.”