TAMPA – It’s safe to say that no player, not a single one, will relish, appreciate and cherish the 2018 NHL All-Star Game experience more than Brian Boyle of the New Jersey Devils will this weekend. And as he sat and reflected on his unlikely journey here just prior to the skills competition on Saturday night, tears welled up in his big Irish brown eyes.
Imagine, if you possibly can, being 33 years old and in the prime of your life, making millions of dollars playing in the best hockey league in the world and living the dream. Imagine finding out one day that you have leukemia. Then days later, doctors tell you and your wife that they believe your two-year-old boy has a rare form of aggressive cancer that can only be eradicated with equally invasive and aggressive chemotherapy.
Welcome to the world of Brian Boyle, NHL all-star. Boyle wasn’t even supposed to be here this weekend, not only because he’s taking the place of injured teammate Taylor Hall, but more importantly because he fully expected to be sitting by the bed of his infant son, Declan, at the Boston Children’s Hospital. Boyle and his wife, Lauren, rushed to Boston on Wednesday night to have emergency treatment done. The plan was for Boyle to return to New Jersey for the Devils’ game on Thursday night, then immediately head back to Boston to spend all-star weekend with his wife and son. But on Thursday morning, he found out he’d been invited to the All-Star Game as Hall’s replacement. Boyle had an excruciating decision to make, one that would involve passing up on his first, and likely only, All-Star Game. It was then that his wife ordered him to go to Tampa.
“She knows that I worked my whole life to play this game,” Boyle said, his eyes filling with tears and his voice cracking with emotion. “So I’m going to do my best. Hopefully we have some clips to show (Declan), we get some swag, it’s pretty special to be here.”
It’s one thing to stare down your own mortality when you’re in your 30s. It’s a whole other level of excruciating pain to look at a helpless two-year-old boy who’s facing the same kind of ordeal. It all started in the weeks after Boyle’s diagnosis, when Boyle and his wife were told by doctors that there was a good chance Declan had Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that is found primarily in bones and soft tissue. It turned out that Declan actually had something called an arteriovenous malformation in his jaw. The way Boyle explained it, the ailment is basically a case of “bad wiring.” Two arteries deposit blood into his jawbone, with only capillaries and veins taking it out. That causes clotting and some pretty terrible pain. The most recent trip to Boston came because there was pressure on Declan’s molar and had it popped out, there would have been a significant amount of bleeding.
It’s manageable and, more importantly, it’s not cancer. “Doctors had Declan pegged for Ewing Sarcoma, it was almost a done deal,” Boyle said. “They were telling us what it might be to prepare us. It was the worst two days of my entire life.”
Athletes talk all the time about putting things into perspective, as if you need something like this to have the proper appreciation of life. But for Boyle, it wasn’t just his career that was put into a different perspective. Suddenly his struggles with chronic myeloid leukemia took a backseat to his son’s needs. It’s a test of faith, even for a devout Catholic like Boyle. But Boyle has seen miracles before. Eighteen years ago, Artie Boyle was diagnosed with cancer and given a five percent chance to live. He had his kidney removed, but the disease had spread to his lungs. This weekend he’s enjoying the weekend with his son. In fact, Boyle said his dad, “might be on one of the pirate ships,” that were part of the Gasparilla Pirate Festival which is also going on in Tampa this weekend.
“It’s something we’ve prayed a lot about and wondered a lot of times, ‘Why is this happening?’ and we’re never going to know the answer,” Boyle said. “Why was I diagnosed with leukemia? I don’t know. We’ve had many scares, we’ve had many tests, but we’ve come out much stronger at the other end. My mother would tell me about Mother Teresa’s quote, ‘I know God would never give me anything I can’t handle, but I sometimes wish He didn’t trust me so much.’ ”
Two years ago, the hockey world in general and the players in particular, rallied around John Scott, an enforcer who was voted into the game on a lark and provided the league with one of its most enduring all-star memories. Brian Boyle is that player in 2018, a guy who deserves to have more blessings bestowed upon him.
“I’m living a fairy-tale life,” Boyle said. “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.”