TAMPA, Fla. – Gather the NHL’s best players for a couple days of fun in the sun and you’re bound to get plenty of laughs.
And, during this weekend at least, a few tears.
Those came intermittently from the intense eyes of Brian Boyle, a journeyman rewarded with an invitation to All-Star weekend amidst a season of personal struggle. Boyle was overwhelmed by the attention and the ovations he received at Amalie Arena.
His heart overflowed with gratitude.
"Sometimes the emotions get the better of you," Boyle said Sunday, before heading back to New Jersey to rejoin the Devils. "That’s OK, too. I think it’s just been a ton of fun, it really has. That’s life. There’s ups and downs, there’s things that happen.
"Sometimes you get picked up and some pretty neat things can happen in your lifetime, and this is something that no matter what happens I’m never going to forget it."
Boyle left here a winner even though the Metropolitan Division didn’t get to play in the final.
The more tangible glory was bestowed on Vancouver Canucks rookie sensation Brock Boeser, who was awarded the MVP after helping the Pacific Division win the three-on-three tournament. His haul was impressive: A $212,500 entry-level bonus and a new car for being named MVP, roughly $91,000 out of his team’s $1-million winner’s share and $25,000 for winning the accuracy challenge in Saturday’s skills competition.
Quite a weekend for the Flow.
"I wasn’t too nervous about today," said Boeser. "Just smile, have fun. I enjoyed all of it."
For Boyle, the prize was simply the experience. He never could have imagined this back in September after some medical testing in training camp revealed he had chronic myeloid leukemia. That sidelined him for the first month of the season.
Even worse, he and wife Lauren soon learned their two-year-old son Declan had a medical issue of his own. He was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, a vein disorder that disrupts the normal flow of blood, and had to undergo surgery earlier this week.
"My diagnosis and what we’ve had to deal with me is a walk in the park compared to what we had to deal with with Declan," Boyle said in an interview with Sportsnet’s David Amber.
It was only with the full support of his wife that he was able to travel to Tampa as an injury replacement for Devils teammate Taylor Hall while she stayed back to look after Declan and eight-month-old daughter Isabella.
"She’s very proud of me," Boyle said of Lauren. "She gives me the most support out of anybody. It’s a good feeling to have a teammate in life like that. That’s why I’m here."
There was a wonderful feeling to this year’s all-star weekend. It truly was a fun event.
The players – the stars – seem to have embraced the three-on-three format. You had Brad Marchand applauding the fans who booed him after scoring a goal, and the entire Atlantic Division bench throwing their helmets on the ice after Lightning star Nikita Kucherov finished off a hat trick.
Connor McDavid had too many breakaways to keep track of. Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews each playfully signalled a referee’s goal point – just as Matthews did in a game earlier this week – when Eichel scored after their team had a goal overturned by an offside review.
Referee Wes McCauley even got in on the act, going into his traditional full throat while announcing that ruling to the crowd: "IT WAS DETERMINED THE PLAY WAS OFFSIDE – NO GOAL!"
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin skated on a line together, just as they did last year. Both benches emptied for an impromptu photo when Willie O’Ree – the first black man to play in the NHL – was honoured during a stoppage in play.
Boeser showed off his lethal wrist shot while scoring in both games he played while Ovechkin surprised everyone in the building with a full-out backcheck to nullify a Steven Stamkos breakaway.
"You know, I tried to do my best to lead by example," Ovechkin dead-panned. "Backchecking, forechecking, doing all the stuff."
The games grew more competitive as they went along – "We’re all playing to win here," said Marchand, only half-jokingly – and produced far more entertainment than their more recent five-on-five predecessors.
A member of the Lightning for parts of three seasons, Boyle was treated like a hometown player over three days here. He is jumping back into the middle of a playoff race with the Devils and returned home with some gifts to go with the memories.
"I don’t keep a whole lot of memorabilia, but I’ll keep the trinkets that they gave me and the jersey and all that from this," said Boyle. "My wife sent me a couple videos of my son watching, and that was pretty cool.
"So I’ll hang on to those."
He also spoke of the "brotherhood" he cherishes being part of as a NHL player. His peers rallied around him just like the fans, with P.K. Subban saying: "It’s great to see a guy like that be able to participate in the all-star game with everything he’s been through. You could tell the guys really were taken by it."
Boyle shook his head in disbelief while trying to sum up what it meant to him. The biggest surprise, he said, was all of the attention he received.
"It’s been fun," said Boyle. "It’s been really, really fun. I play against these guys, I know how good they are. The ovation, the support, it’s been incredible.
"It’s been 10 times better than I thought it could ever be."