Undaunted, Boyle continued to work out and stay in top shape, hoping a playoff team might sign him prior to the final push at the trade deadline. Still nothing. But once he saw the World Championship would go ahead in Riga with the necessary COVID-19 precautions, he called USA Hockey and offered his services. They were interested.
“Coming in, I think I needed to earn some trust with the coaches and teammates because I hadn't played in a long time,” Boyle admitted. These are admirable words from a man who has been in the pro game for half his life.
Boyle’s journey has not been a straight line, and at 36, as he plays in his first career tournament wearing the USA colours, he can look back and appreciate what he has had and also to look forward to the coming days when he hopes to add a new story of success to his life. The Americans are playing a quarter-finals game against the Slovaks, and are almost certainly the favourites based on performance so far in Riga.
Over the course of the last two weeks, Boyle can point to several markers that have made the tournament more and more satisfying personally as he has helped his team achieve its goals as well.
In his first games, Boyle was playing about eight minutes a game, but as the tournament progressed, so did his ice time increase to the point that he played nearly 11 minutes in the team’s last two games.
In the fourth game, Boyle also scored his first goal, an important marker that gave the team a 2-1 lead over Latvia en route to a 4-1 win. Boyle was playing on a line with Matty Beniers, at 18 the youngest player on the team and not draft eligible until this summer. Indeed, Beniers’s parents hadn’t celebrated their new-born’s first birthday when Boyle was drafted 26th overall by Los Angeles in the summer of 2003.
“Scoring is the most fun part of the game,” Boyle said. “You want to score and help the team. It's tons of fun. What Matty said after the second period was, 'Let's get another one.' So, it's nice to see that energy that he has, that will to go to the net. He knows at such a young age that wearing USA on his jersey is a huge deal. He wants to get better. We spoke last night about we could do to contribute more, and fortunately for us we were able to tonight.”
But there was a greater compliment coach Jack Capuano paid Boyle that night against Latvia. Late in the game, Latvia pressing and their goalie on the bench, Capuano had Boyle out for the final minute, faceoff in the USA end.
“When I get a tap on the shoulder with a minute left, that's a great feeling,” Boyle admitted. “You really want to put a little pressure on yourself to perform, because it's important. We'd worked so hard for 59 minutes to that point. Guys getting out to block shots and sacrificing themselves, so you really want to hold your end up of the bargain as a player. But at the same time, everybody is supportive. It's a special group, and I'm excited and thrilled to be able to be part of it.”
And in the final game of the preliminary round, after an injury to Justin Abdelkader, Boyle was given the “C” for his sweater. From walk-on to captain in two weeks, and an honour well deserved if his respect and popularity among his teammates in any indication.
“It's awful for "Abby", especially for how he's been playing and what he's brought to this team,” Boyle said after that game against Italy. “It's rubbed off on everyone. But it's a huge honour, and I have some big shoes to fill with him going down. Obviously, I'm proud to wear a letter.”
Boyle was drafted by the Kings after two years at a prep school, after which he attended Boston College for four seasons. He’s big—very big—and he’s tough, but no one would call him a goon. He played for seven teams between 2007 and 2020, scoring as many as 21 goals for the Rangers in 2010-11. Seven times he hit double digits in goals, and he never had more than 74 PIMs in any season.
One of his stops was Toronto, and it was there he decided he needed to work on his skating—edges, footwork, movement. So, he put in extra hours with Barb Underhill, a former world champion figure skater hired by the Leafs for just this purpose. Underhill maxed out at 4’11”, but there she was at the practise rink showing 6’7” Boyle how to use his edges more effectively, how to turn faster and more effectively. The big man wanted to improve a part of his game no one would have really thought about.
Improvement, however, took a back seat to sobering reality in 2017. That summer, he signed a two-year deal with New Jersey, but just a few weeks later learned from his doctor that he had chronic myelogenous leukemia, a form of blood and bone marrow cancer that was treatable with drugs. He missed training that summer and the beginning of the season, but he returned on November 1 and scored his first goal a week later. He received the Bill Masterton Trophy at season’s end for his successful fight, and has never looked back.
In Riga, Boyle isn’t expected to lead the offence, but he is expected to be a leader and inspiration for the younger players. He has soft hands for a big guy and his acumen in the faceoff circle has him winning almost 57 per cent of the draws in the tournament, among the leaders. The team is in the playoffs and has its sights set on a medal, and Boyle has been a big part of the team’s success.
“It’s cool,” he said of the experience. “We’ve won some games here. We get to see our flag go up and sing our anthem. It’s a proud team in there. We obviously all have a lot to play for, but living in the country we do, with the opportunities we’ve had, we’re so fortunate. It’s certainly a blessing to be able to play.”