The phone rings, you say hello. Before any further pleasantries, Jason Blake has a question.
“How’s Brian doing?”
“I remember thinking, ‘God, he’s got a wonderful family.’ That’s going to help him a lot. I was so fortunate to do everything I loved as a kid. When you’re playing, you take it for granted once in a while, but you learn the only thing that matters is your family. They’re the ones who are going to be there at the end of the day.”
“He carries himself with such character,” Blake adds about Boyle. “I think he’ll be just fine. I really do.”
Boyle revealed Tuesday that he was recently diagnosed with chronic myeloid (or myelogenous) leukemia. It’s been 10 years, almost to the day, Blake received the same diagnosis. He remembers every detail.
“It’s not uncommon in training camp to have your blood tested twice. Then, they came to me and said, ‘We’re going to do it a third time. Meet us at Princess Margaret Hospital.’ Remember, I’ve just signed with Toronto, I don’t know the city, there’s construction everywhere. I park the car with my wife and we go up to the second floor.”
The elevator doors open. Jason and Sara Blake see the words: “Princess Margaret Cancer Research Centre.”
“They tell us to go to the right. I’m starting to lose my mind, but I see we’re going to a section marked, ‘Leukemia.’ Then, I’m saying, ‘What the f—? What is going on?’ They told me, ‘We have good news and bad news, which do you want to hear first?’”
Blake laughs when recalling this part of the conversation.
“Obviously, I want the bad news first, because, since you’re telling me there’s good news, I want that last,” he answered.
The good news was that there were major advancements in CML treatment prior to his diagnosis. Blake gave great reviews to his oncologist, Dr. Jeffrey Lipton, who had done a ton of research and gone to Europe to study the new option. Blake was told that if he had been diagnosed five years earlier, the success rate was much lower.
But a new drug, Gleevec, was available. It was, and still is, known as “the magic bullet.” Blake was given the choice of trying that, or a bone marrow transplant.
“With bone marrow, I knew I was going to have to give up a year, and there was no guarantee it would work. They were confident the pill would be great. For us as players, it’s a reminder how fortunate we are that we get to do this. Because we do these blood tests, they catch it early. Often, men don’t start it until north of 45. I was 34. Brian is 32. When I got diagnosed, as much as it sucked… they caught it early. The support system will be excellent.
“The Devils and the NHL will take care of him.”
A decade later, Blake still takes one pill every morning. But our conversation indicated he’s in a great headspace, living in Minnesota with his wife and four children. He played 445 NHL games after the diagnosis. As you can imagine, the hardest part was the beginning.
“I didn’t miss any (regular-season) games, but it was tough. It’s basically chemotherapy in a pill form. I came to camp (at) 182 pounds, because that’s what I played at. I lost 10 pounds in the first seven, eight, days. It was a big adjustment, trying to manage weight. Every time I ate, I couldn’t stay out of the bathroom, because your stomach is upset and you’re nauseous.”
“As time went on, I cramped up quite a bit and started drinking tonic water during periods. I still drink it today.”
He and Boyle share something else: both signed with new teams, which brought its own pressures. In the summer of 2007, no free agent hit the market with more goals the previous season than Blake’s 40 for the New York Islanders. Toronto pounced with a five-year, $20-million deal. Boyle’s on a new two-year, $5.5-million contract in New Jersey.
“That day (I was diagnosed), they took part of my bone marrow,” Blake said. “That night, we had a pre-season game against Buffalo. I wanted to play, but it hurt so bad I couldn’t. It was tough. I missed practices, I missed pre-season games. I didn’t want to be the new guy in town, with teammates thinking I was asking for special treatment. So I asked if I could address the team.”
“Darcy Tucker,” Blake pauses to laugh a little bit, “We had some real run-ins when I played for the Islanders. Then, we sat next to each other in Toronto. After I spoke, Darcy sat me down and said, ‘We sit next to each other. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me this. We would have taken care of you.’ He’s a great guy.
“They’ll take care of (Boyle). It’s a fraternity, almost. Even if you hate each other on the ice, people care for guys. One morning in Carolina, I went to talk to Peter Laviolette, who was my coach with the Islanders. He must have talked to his team, because they were coming over the red line in warmup, tapping me on the ass.”
Blake said Matt Cullen sent him Boyle’s number, and he will reach out. But he’s waiting for the right time, because, “as much as you appreciate all the notes, you want your privacy, too.”
What would he tell him?
“I’ve played against him. He’s a tough guy who works hard every shift. His attitude will get him through this.”
Then Blake pauses.
“Yes, I was dealt a s—ty hand. But how you play that hand decides what kind of a person you are moving forward. As much as it sucks, accept the fact. Deal with it. There is no other option.
“God bless him, I really mean that.”
1. Blake’s 14-year-old son, Jackson, will participate in the USHL showcase next week in Pittsburgh. “Maybe he will play for North Dakota one day,” he laughed. Blake had 171 points in 119 games in Grand Forks from 1996-99.
2. Joffrey Lupul tweeted Wednesday that he will not pursue a second opinion to challenge his failed physical with Toronto. The question now becomes: does the NHL ask him to see a doctor for its own ruling?
It’s not unprecedented. During the 2008-09 season, other clubs complained after Calgary placed Rhett Warrener on waivers, then put him on long-term injury, where he spent the season. The defenceman was examined twice, the second time when the Flames were forced to play with just 15 skaters because of salary-cap problems. Philadelphia was on LTIR for almost a decade and, while no one would confirm it, word was there were several occasions where Flyers players had to see league-appointed physicians.
As a couple of Lupul’s former teammates indicated, he still wants to play. That’s different than say, Andrew Ference/Edmonton or Chris Pronger/Philadelphia. As you all know, if you don’t live in Toronto, you hate Toronto; certainly opposing teams wouldn’t mind seeing the Maple Leafs with a deeper cap crunch. But, how many really want tougher policing?
3. Lupul’s initial Instagram post revealed what has long been suspected: he does not like that the Maple Leafs decided they don’t want him around. After the great disappointment of 2014-15, the organization made it clear things were going to change and certain personalities were not long for the city. I don’t profess to know the exact reason, but the team took the first opportunity it could to remove him. This was Lupul’s way of stating his disapproval. It’s not easy for him to be banished as Toronto appears on the rise. It is also a reminder that if anyone says anything remotely controversial on social media or in a foreign language — it is not going to stay hidden.
4. I’m a big believer in the Lou Lamoriello, “If you have time, use it,” philosophy, so, when it comes to unsigned players, the next pressure point is the start of the season. That said, I’m surprised that Josh Anderson remains without a deal. Columbus went the extra mile to keep the edgy, rapidly improving forward from Vegas, and others.
It is believed, for example, that Colorado asked for him in Matt Duchene talks, only to be rejected. Word is the Jackets want a three-year term to protect against Anderson’s upcoming salary arbitration eligibility, but the two sides are nowhere close on value. Another source indicated Anderson used Tom Wilson as a comparable. The Washington forward signed for two years and $4 million, but that did not bridge the gap, either. Anderson’s agent, Darren Ferris, declined comment. This is a huge year for the Blue Jackets, too.
5. Ferris also represents Andreas Athanasiou. The longer this takes, the more you think a Detroit-Pittsburgh trade is contingent on his signing with the Red Wings. At his season-opening media conference, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford indicated there were three options for the Penguins to consider. Riley Sheahan is one, and I think the parameters are all but agreed to. (I’m wondering if Derrick Pouliot is a possibility, he seems like a sensible gamble for Detroit.) But, I don’t know how the Red Wings feel about potentially losing both Athanasiou and Sheahan, which could be holding up the deal. Of course, Pittsburgh could decide to move on, too.
6. Part II of this whole scenario is the Penguins may be waiting to figure out this move before making Evgeni Malkin happy and taking the plunge with Danis Zaripov.
7. Reports from overseas indicate Jaromir Jagr is prepared to make an announcement about a future club on Oct. 5. That indicates he’s got a KHL situation sorted out, and is just waiting to see if anything shakes loose in the NHL. HC Neftekhimik’s Rail Yakupov told Sport-Express’s Igor Eronko that his club is “very interested” in Jagr.