Beating back cancer
by Ryan O'Leary|09 NOV 2018
Brian Boyle was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia back in September 2017. He returned to the ice a few months later, and last week announced that his cancer was in full remission. 
photo: Josh Holmberg / HHOF Images

It’s not everyday that you see a hulking, 6’6” NHL centre break into tears – but Brian Boyle has had a few big reasons to get all choked up.

Back in February, Boyle stood teary-eyed in front of 20,000 cheering fans during introductions at the 2018 NHL All Star Game, taking it all in. The cheering, the clapping, the whistling…all for a player who overcame a blood cancer diagnosis to return to play pro hockey in the same season that he was diagnosed.

You could have already called it an incredible comeback then, but Boyle wasn’t done. Last Monday, a week after announcing that his chronic myeloid leukemia had gone into full remission, Boyle scored a hat trick for the New Jersey Devils in a 5-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

The fac that his first-ever NHL hat trick came during the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night?

Well played, Mr. Boyle. 

It was a long, hard road the 33-year-old veteran. The All-Star Game, held in Tampa, Florida, was a homecoming of sorts for Boyle, who spent the better part of three seasons as assistant captain of the Lightning before being traded to Toronto in February 2017. Boyle was shipped north to help guide a young Maple Leafs team making a playoff push and clear cap space for a cash-strapped Lightning team. 

“When you’re with a team you think you’re going to be with them long term, you have to dive into it with that intention,” said Boyle. “But there’s a business side to things. You get moved and uprooted and it’s difficult.”

That year the Leafs ran into the Washington Capitals – winners of the President’s Trophy – in the playoffs and were disposed of in six games. Boyle faced free agency and another move for he and his wife Lauren and their two children. Ultimately he signed a two-year, $5.5M deal with the New Jersey Devils – his fifth NHL team since joining the league in 2007.

Then, unexpectedly, came the cancer, as it does for too many people.

In Brian’s case it was chronic myeloid leukemia – cancer of the white blood cells.

The news came just three weeks before the season started and sent shockwaves throughout the league. Messages of support and solidarity flooded social media and Brian’s phone, as players and fans alike couldn’t believe the bruising forward was beset by cancer.

“The outpouring I received was tremendous,” Boyle said with gratitude. “I can’t thank people enough for their encouragement – it gives me a ton of strength.”

Boyle was diagnosed in September 2017 and returned to the ice two months later. 
photo: Rusty Barton / HHOF Images

But faced with the severity of the situation, the disease quite literally brought the Boyle’s to their knees and put Brian’s career on temporary hold.

“We turned to our faith first, hit our knees and prayed as hard as we could,” he said. “It was the scariest few weeks of my life and I didn’t know which way to turn.”

This isn’t the first time Boyle has dealt with cancer. His father Arthur had renal cell carcinoma, aka kidney cancer, when Brian was just 14-years-old. Brian and his 12 other siblings witnessed as the cancer spread to their father’s lungs and he was given a short time to live.

Running out of options, the eldest Boyle sought an alternative healing retreat and when he returned home a lung scan showed a miracle. The cancer was gone and Arthur was given a clean bill of health.

“Our faith was tested then and it was tested now,” said Boyle. “My dad and I talked a bunch throughout about his experience and he helped me understand that God has a plan in all this.”

Luckily, in Brian’s case the disease was discovered early, and Devils team doctors were able to treat the leukemia and offer a management program that would allow Boyle to play again so long as he had the stamina.

“They told me the cancer was very treatable, but I know a lot more about leukemia now than I’d like to,” said Boyle. “Cancer is not a club you want to be in.”

Free of the dread over his health, Brian targeted the Devils’ November 1 matchup with the Vancouver Canucks for his triumphant return.

Then tragedy struck. Again. This time it was his son Declan. The three year-old was diagnosed with brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in his chin, a tangle of arteries and veins that disrupt the normal flow of blood.

“We had a tough fall, with me and my son going through some very, very scary stuff,” Boyle said. “I was scared for myself for a couple days, until I found out the survival rate is really high, but the news about my son was a big blow.”

No longer afraid for his own life, Brian and his wife Lauren turned their focus to Declan. They thought the AVM was a tumour and that the disease could have fatal effects. But a few surgeries later, including one just before the All-Star Game, Declan’s prognosis is strong, much to the relief of the Boyle’s and their large family.

“It’s not as serious as it could be, which the doctors called miraculous,” said Boyle. “He’s recovering fine and is a normal three-year-old.”

The outpouring I received was tremendous,” Boyle said with gratitude. “I can’t thank people enough for their encouragement – it gives me a ton of strength.
Through it all, the Devils stood by Boyle and offered their assistance with anything he needed, even though he hadn’t yet played a single game for the club.

“Their support each day with whatever my family or I needed was incredible,” said Boyle. “They told me that hockey took a backseat to my health and they were on call for us 24 hours a day.”

Finally, with a clean bill of health, Brian suited up for the Devils and played 15:19 in a road win over the Canucks.

“I’ll never forget that first game back in Vancouver,” he said.

But the biggest moment was reserved for Boyle’s second home game with the Devils. Hours after doctor’s told Brian and Lauren that Declan would be healthy, he scored his first goal of the season.

There were those tears again.

Boyle was not completely out of the woods at the time. He had to be extremely careful with anything that goes into his body and rests as much as possible.

Nevertheless his numbers didn’t slip. In 69 games he scored 23 points, averaged solid minutes and was a regular fixture on the Devils’ power play and penalty kill for the increased number. He has only gotten better this year, with his hat trick performance against the Penguins bumping him up to seven points in 13 game in the young season. 

“I don’t just want to be happy to be here, I want to play to the best of my abilities.”

That brings us to back to Tampa. When Devils star Taylor Hall was ruled out of the All-Star Game with an injury, Brian was nominated to take his spot. Worried about the toll this season had taken on his wife and son, Brian balked. But Lauren  – who was recently announced as the NHL's Hockey Fights Cancer Ambassador for the 2018/19 season – encouraged him to go back to Tampa to reap the benefits of his hard work both on and off the ice.

‘”I’m not playing if it’s not for my wife,” Boyle said at the All-Star Game. “At her urging…she just knows that I’ve worked my whole life to play this game.” 

Brian finished second in the accuracy shooting portion of the skills competition and his Metropolitan Division team lost to the Atlantic Division the following day, but when you ask Brian, no part of the weekend was a failure.

“It is such a privilege and blessing to play in this league everyday,” said Boyle. “It’s fun to come to the rink everyday and when you’re not able to, it sucks.”