In a three-rink complex 45 minutes southwest of his hometown in Hingham, Mass., Brian Boyle practiced with the South Shore Kings. No one had offered him a contract over the summer—a bottleneck of restricted free agents froze the market for veteran players—so he worked in with his former junior team, where he had at least 10 years on the current club’s oldest player.
When Boyle, on the edge of turning 35, went unsigned as NHL training camps started ahead of the 2019–20 season, he had to make some adjustments. Longtime trainer Brian McDonagh upped anaerobic exercises to maintain strength, while Boyle replicated the rhythms and rigors of the league’s schedule by biking hard on game nights and turning in strenuous early workouts to mimic morning skates.
Two weeks into the season, the call came. The Panthers officially signed Boyle to a one-year, $940,000 contract. Joining his third team in nine months, Boyle said, “I’m not expected to be a cheerleader—I want to make a difference for the team on the ice.”
At 6’6” and 245 lbs, Boyle has carved out a role as a bottom-six grinder even as teams turn to speedier, skilled players on their third and fourth lines. He’s fought to stay in the league, just two years after he fought for his life, after it was upended by cancer.
“It scared the s*** out of me,” Boyle remembers. “I had my daughter, who was four months old, and my son [who] was not even two-and-a-half yet. It's scary to hear those words.”
Before the preseason in August 2017, Boyle felt fatigued, so much so that he wondered whether his hockey career was coming to a close. When he underwent routine blood tests at the start of the Devils’ training camp, the results were unexpected: Boyle had chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), an uncommon cancer of the bone marrow. He started treatment early, giving him the chance to return to the ice, as former NHLer Jason Blake had done before with CML.
But the whirlwind continued: Two weeks after Boyle was diagnosed with cancer, he and his wife, Lauren, took their two-year-old son, Declan, to the doctor to get his englarged, fragile chin examined. “It used to be like an eggshell,” Boyle says.
At first, the doctor thought Declan could have Ewing’s Sarcoma, an extremely rare tumor that forms in bone or soft tissue. But after a CT scan and an MRI, results showed that Declan had an arteriovenous malformation of the jaw. Instead of cancer, Boyle’s son had a rare condition where blood vessels form abnormally and arteries and veins become tangled, disrupting normal blood flow. As Boyle battled his way back onto the NHL ice, only missing 10 games and later earning an All-Star selection, Declan underwent multiple surgeries back in Boston.
“I'm not downplaying what I was diagnosed with,” Boyle says. “This is like a million times worse. We go to the Children's Hospital in Boston and we see so many families in there and it's the most unfair thing there is. It's a scary thing, as a parent, you'd trade places in a minute.”
Boyle finished his 2017–18 season with 13 goals and 23 points, and was honored with the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for his perseverance and dedication to hockey. In just over a year, Boyle had experienced the birth of his first daughter, a brush with cancer, the learning of his son’s medical condition, and his own subsequent return to the rink. But life didn’t slow down. Boyle announced his cancer was in remission in October 2018 and Lauren was announced as a Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador soon after. A few months later, he was moved to the Predators for a second-round pick at the trade deadline. Nashville lost in six games to the Stars in the first round.
Boyle says Declan’s condition is progressing, but before Thanksgiving he had another procedure to return normal blood flow by dissolving some veins. Lauren flew up to Boston while her husband played on the road against the Capitals, with his family providing a 24/7 support system in Florida and Massachusetts.
“It’s tough for us. We thought we were over and it came back,” Boyle says. “Maybe we were starting to drive on our goal line and then we drove into red zone. Now we're back in field goal range. We took a sack.
“It’s a lot better than it was a couple of years ago. [Declan] is great. He's healthy, he's eating, he's a big boy. He's been inspiring—that's the best way I can put it.”
“When it comes to cancer, people don't always want to talk about it. Unfortunately, it's often a sad story. But it can also be an inspiring story about people who are fearless in times of adversity, people who have battled and people who are not afraid to put up a fight.” —Brian Boyle, 2014
Boyle could as well have said this about himself, but he wrote this for ESPN about someone else. One of thirteen children, Boyle wasn’t the first member of his family to overcome cancer. Artie, his father, was diagnosed with kidney cancer when Brian was 14, and eight months later it metastasized to his lung. With six months to live, Artie made pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, an unofficial Catholic holy site since the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to six teens in 1981. When he returned home, a CAT scan showed the cancer was gone.
“You're a person that's fighting this thing and that mental aspect of it is a huge, huge, huge thing,” Boyle says. “[Artie] talks about those dark days. You get depression, really, because you know you're mortality is right there in front of you.”
While his cancer remains in remission, Boyle continues to take medication twice a day, but is relatively unaffected by it. In the two years since his diagnosis, he’s made visits to kids at Boston Children’s Hospital and Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. He says he wants to do more—switching jerseys three times in the span of a year can get in the way—but he and Lauren have helped out with fundraisers and have met with cancer patients and survivors through community outreach efforts. He says he goes into the visits trying to talk about their interests, not their illnesses.
On the ice, Boyle hasn’t changed. He’s scored four goals and eight points and has won 57.5% of his faceoffs while centering the Panthers’ fourth line. Boyle’s leadership and veteran presence within the locker room has never wavered, and his diagnosis hasn’t affected his performance on the ice. In his 13th NHL season—and with a four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, Isabella, at home—Boyle says he feels good and that he’s going to play “until they tell me I can't anymore.”
“I get to have a little bit more fun with it again and, if it doesn't go right one night, I'll still be angry, it will still be tough to go to sleep,” Boyle says. “But it's a little easier when I get home, the kids give you a hug and they're happy to see you, after all we've been through.”