Jason Blake acknowledges that he doesn’t know Brian Boyle very well, but the brotherhood of hockey players is a strong one. Blake played against Boyle a few times and knows how fierce a competitor Boyle is. And now that they’re linked in a very unique way, Blake is confident the competitor in Boyle will respond to the adversity in his life the same way he did a decade ago.
Almost exactly 10 years ago and under almost identical circumstances, Blake was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML), a treatable form of cancer that was discovered in Boyle after he underwent routine blood tests during his pre-training camp physical with the New Jersey Devils. Like Boyle, Blake had felt a little run down, but attributed it to the upheaval of moving to a new team in the off-season. In fact, the day he was given his diagnosis in Toronto, his Maple Leafs were scheduled to play in a pre-season game against the Buffalo Sabres that night.
“I was determined to play that night,” Blake told THN.com in a telephone interview from Minneapolis. “Going to the rink and being with the guys was my savior.”
Blake was lucky. As is the case with Boyle, the disease was caught in a very early stage and with aggressive treatment, Blake did not miss a regular season game that year. But Blake cautions that doesn’t mean there might not be challenging days ahead for Boyle. The first thing he’ll likely have to contend with is some weight loss because of the drugs he’ll be taking and the shock to his system. Blake said he struggled for the first couple of months because he had to adjust to playing about 10 pounds lighter than he was earlier in his career. But that might not be such a huge challenge for Boyle, who usually plays at over 240 pounds.
Blake also said it’s of vital importance that Boyle lean on his teammates, but that he has a good support network around him. Blake found he was able to put things out of his mind while he was playing and practicing, but was grateful that he had good people around him when he was away from the rink. “You’re only at the rink a couple of hours a day,” Blake said. “You leave the rink and you have all this time to think and as a hockey player, when you think too much it’s not a good thing. I think that goes pretty much for men in general.”
Then there’s the emotional aspect of all of it. Blake said just hearing the news was an enormous shock to his system. He remembers the day he received his diagnosis, he was told by Leafs team doctor Noah Forman to come to the hospital to have blood work done. He was new in town and wasn’t paying much attention to his surroundings. The hospital was undergoing major reconstruction and Forman told Blake to park in the back, so Blake didn’t even know the name of the hospital.
Accompanied by his wife, Sarah, Blake reported to the hospital and had blood drawn immediately. Forman then told him they were going to the second floor and it was only when he arrived there that he realized the gravity of the situation.
“I kept asking him, ‘Noah, what are we doing? What’s going on?’ ” Blake recalled. “And we got to the second floor and I just dropped to my knees. There was a big emblem on the wall that said, ‘Princess Margaret Cancer Research Centre’. The whole time I’m shaking and Sarah is shaking and I’m saying to Noah, ‘Seriously, what’s going on?’ I was just numb.”
It was there that for the first time he met Dr. Jeffrey Lipton, a leukemia specialist at the hospital who guided Blake through his treatment. Blake remembers being told that his disease could be successfully treated with drugs, but that five years prior to that, the odds would have been only 50-50 that he would survive another 10 years. “It’s a traumatic thing,” Blake said. “Any person who gets told he has cancer – and that’s what it is, cancer of your blood – I don’t care how old you are, it’s a shock.”
The good thing is that after struggling that first year in Toronto, Blake went on to play another four seasons in the NHL before retiring at the age of 38. He also won the Masterton Trophy in 2008. He takes a daily pill called ‘the magic bullet’ that helps him manage his disease and still works out and runs, but said there are days when he still feels the effects.
“Basically what I tell people is that it’s like taking chemotherapy in a drug,” Blake said. “I take it every day and I’ll take it for the rest of my life. You feel sluggish sometimes, but I’m alive.”