Brian Boyle played 14 seasons in the NHL, forging a reputation as a passionate player who gave his all every game. He inspired the hockey world off the ice, too, during his battle with chronic myelogenous leukemia.
He announced he had been diagnosed with a form of blood and bone marrow cancer in September 2017. He missed the first 10 games of the 2017-18 season but ended up played 69 games for the New Jersey Devils while undergoing treatment. Boyle was awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey” by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Boyle scored his first goal after his diagnosis on Nov. 9, 2017, leading to an emotional moment for the veteran forward and the fans in the stands.
Almost a year later, Boyle had another incredible moment in his comeback: Tallying the first hat trick of his career on Nov. 5, 2018, against the Pittsburgh Penguins — on Hockey Fights Cancer night, no less. Around two weeks before that game, Boyle found out that he was in remission.
Boyle joined Arda Ocal on ESPN’s digital hockey show “The Drop” this week to talk about Hockey Fights Cancer, as well as his post-NHL life and what it was like to play with Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist on the New York Rangers. Note that the below transcript was edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available on all podcasting platforms and on the NHL on ESPN channel on YouTube.
The NHL, the Players’ Association, and the V Foundation are united in the fight against cancer. Together they are funding game-changing research to help achieve Victory Over Cancer. You can join them in this fight. Visit HockeyFightsCancer.com to donate now.
ESPN: How has the media side of things been going for you?
Boyle: I’m learning. I’m really trying to improve. I enjoy it very much, so that’s why I’m trying to get better at it. I get to watch a lot of hockey. We just had twins. We got a lot of kids running around, and I get to tell my wife “I have to work, I gotta watch these games.”
It’s still the game, and I love chatting about it. A former teammate of mine and good friend Cory Schneider jumped on the NHL Network, too. We were chopping it up one day and I think we’re gonna do a podcast. We would bounce things back and forth when we played together for the Devils, and his perspective was awesome. We’ve actually recorded a few. I think the name is the best part of the podcast so far: We’re gonna be called “The One-Time All-Stars.” Because we were both all-stars … once. It was gonna be that or “The Worst of the Best.”
ESPN: Speaking of goalies, Henrik Lundqvist just got inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. If you’re able to share, what is your favorite Henrik Lundqvist story?
Boyle: He had some pretty cool vehicles when he played, and he probably still does. When we were playing together, he had this gray Lamborghini. He had it detailed — made it matted, made it a little darker. In the back, where it says Lamborghini in cursive, I guess when he got it detailed the guy changed it to Lundqvist in cursive.
So he pulls up to the rink, and his name’s on the back of his car. And the guys just started giving it to him. We all took thick white hockey tape, put a couple layers down, and printed our names on the back of our own cars. And he was furious. He’d come in the room, and he’s like, “How come everybody always picks on me?”
He drives his Maserati the next couple days and then the Lamborghini. And now it says Lamborghini again. Didn’t say Lundqvist. He took it down. Meanwhile, us idiots are driving through Manhattan with our names on the back of our cars.
My favorite competitive story about Hank was at the end of practice. He’d like to take some breakaways. Every guy would go twice, and I think there were 16 guys in line. I remembered counting it because no one was scoring on him. On the last attempt, he stopped the first one. And I forget who scored, but the 32nd attempt went in. He was 31-for-32. And his stick came down on the crossbar with force, broke right in half, in a million pieces. He flipped the net on its end, said some a bunch of swears in Swedish and skated off the ice.
Guys were laughing but I was in awe of that. It’s not fake. That is what he expects from himself.
Henrik Lundqvist gets emotional thanking family during HOF speech
Henrik Lundqvist gets choked up talking about the support his family provided him during his hockey journey.
ESPN: Obviously, one of the big reasons we wanted to have you on was this month is Hockey Fights Cancer month. You have a spectacular journey. Not only just dealing with cancer as a human being, but also as an NHL player. And what happened on the ice in and around Hockey Fights Cancer month for you. There are two moments in particular. One was when you scored your first goal after your diagnosis. What do you remember about that?
Boyle: That one was interesting because my son had just gotten out of the hospital. He had a rare malformation in his jaw which was presenting like Ewing sarcoma. This was two or three weeks after I was diagnosed with leukemia. We didn’t know what was going on, but his jaw was enormous, and it was very scary.
We went to a couple places around the New York area, and then I said I have to take him up to Boston and the doctor. They told me this was cancer. I said, “We haven’t even done a biopsy yet.” I was doing all my own research, which is never good. It just added stress and panic. But I asked if it was an arteriovenous malformation instead. And they said it’s not, because it never crosses the midline of the jaw, ever. I said, “I think it’s that.” But they said it can’t be.
Anyway, he goes in. They open him up a little bit, and it turns out it’s an AVM. First human ever on record that had it where he had it. So the doctor comes back in. He’s crying, and I’m panicked even more now, and he tells me I was right. It’s not cancer and he couldn’t believe it. And me and this gentleman — Dr. Sal Afshar, an angel on earth — are embracing and we’re sobbing in each other’s arms.
[My son] has his first surgery. I leave day of the game. Fly down to Jersey, get into the game against the Oilers [on Nov. 9, 2017]. Something was working for me that day. I still get emotional talking about it: That celebration was a little bit with what I was going through, but more so [about] my son. It was a little tap on the shoulder from God being like, “Everything’s gonna be alright, man.” He had 13 more surgeries after that, so it wasn’t easy, but it was it was a real big moment for me, for a lot of reasons.
I was sobbing on the bench. My head was down and I was trying to get it together. It’s 100% my favorite goal I ever scored.
The crowd noise when that went in … they lifted me up more than they’ll ever know in Jersey. And it’s funny because I played in Jersey, and I played in New York, and that’s a big rivalry, and both fan bases mean so much to me.
ESPN: A year later you have a hat trick on Hockey Fights Cancer night with the Devils. The third goal was a one-timer. You were on one knee, and you stayed there for like an extra three seconds. What were you thinking in that exact moment?
Boyle: I was just like “Holy s—, it went in. I can’t believe this is happening again.” At Hockey Fights Cancer night that year, I scored against the Islanders. The game after the Edmonton game it was Hockey Fights Cancer night and I scored against Vancouver. It seemed like on Hockey Fights Cancer nights, I had a lot of success.
Two of the goals were tip-in goals. I didn’t think I touched the first one. Ben Lovejoy shot it. I’m like, “Lovy, that’s your goal.” So after I scored the third one, he comes over to me and says, “You better stop talking about this now. That’s your goal. This is too big. You gotta take it.”
ESPN: Do you ever look back on that night and be like, man, Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better? Like everything you went through, your cancer is in remission. And then a week or two later, you have your first career hat trick in the NHL on Hockey Fights Cancer night?
Boyle: It was. My dad, who’s battled cancer for 20-plus years, was at the game because he was doing a talk in the area. He’s a miracle. He shouldn’t be alive. But he was cured miraculously. His cancer disappeared. We come from a real, strong Catholic faith. I’ve seen miracles happen. Everybody has different faith, and that’s great. And hopefully, people have faith. I think it’s been the biggest reason we’ve gotten out of this. A lot of a lot of bad things have happened to us, and we’ve gotten through it on the other side.
On Hockey Fights Cancer night, everyone [in the crowd] had their signs up. And a lot of signs had my name on it, which I couldn’t believe. But then you just look around at all the names. I got to meet a lot of people on those nights that were a lot worse off than I was, that had wonderful, amazing, heroic attitudes towards their diagnosis. They understand that it affects not just the patient, but their entire family.
Going through what I went through with my son, all those surgeries at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, you can get down sometimes. It is hard, and that’s OK. I looked around late at night if my son was awake and saw other children that had much harder fights.
I went down to get some food at the Children’s Hospital, and I saw a young girl, probably about four, and with her dad and her mom and her little brother, who was probably two. And the 2-year-old was the patient. The dad and the girl had to go home because the girl probably had school. The mom was going to stay with the little boy at the hospital. And the girl would not leave. She was sobbing, trying to hug her brother, didn’t want to leave him. And that’s when you realize that it affects everybody. And it was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in that hospital.
Don’t forget the financial burdens it places on people. How important these [Hockey Fights Cancer] nights are to raise money and to try to raise funds for research, so this doesn’t happen to these young children. Because it is the most devastating, cruel thing I’ve ever seen.
ESPN: To that point this year in the NHL, there are no themed warm-up jerseys on the ice for things like Hockey Fights Cancer. What are your thoughts and what was your reaction when you heard that?
Boyle: It’s turned into something that it should never have been. It has turned into two sides pointing fingers. That’s the way it goes. But people will find reasons to make a bunch of noise. I think the Internet is gonna be our demise at some point.
For anyone going into a hockey rink who thinks they’re different and that they don’t belong there, I don’t think that’s OK. For anybody that has military ties, and they’re not really able to be proud of that, I don’t think that’s OK. For the Hockey Fights Cancer, if we have an opportunity to do something very small to benefit these people that I just spoke about that have it much worse off than we do, then I think you do it. We have the platform to do these things. We have the platform to make things better.
Hockey’s a hard game. It’s demanding. It’s physical. You hear all these stories about guys who fought and then had a beer after the game, or they’re friends in the offseason. It’s a community that’s tighter than any. In my opinion, this is pulling it apart. So there has to be a middle ground. I’m not saying it was perfect, how it was all done. I think different cities should have their own promotions. It costs a lot to run a team in the NHL, you should be able to promote things you want to, within reason.
I think the NHL thought it was too much noise and negativity. So they pulled the plug on all of it. And that’s kind of like parents to kids when you’re fighting and bickering over an iPad or a video game. It’s like, “Screw this. We’re done with it.” And a lot of good got taken out with it, which is unfortunate.
I’m not pointing fingers at the league with how they handled it. I think there was just too much commotion. They did what they thought was right at the time. But the league does a lot of good with Hockey Fights Cancer and still raises money.
ESPN: Finally, the idea of battling cancer going through treatments and then having to play at the highest level. What was that like for you to have to deal with this mentally, physically, but also be called upon to play your sport at the highest level?
Boyle: I just remember a lot of people texting me. It was weird. I appreciated all of it. I really, really did. And it got me through a lot of the tougher times. And then I wanted to get back on the ice so it would stop.
In the beginning, guys were taking it easy on me, I thought. I missed the first 10 games because my spleen was still pretty enlarged because of all the white blood cells in my blood. I was losing my mind on the trainers and the coaches for not letting me play. I just wanted to get back to show everyone I was OK. My family, my friends back home, my teammates in the rest of the league — I’m fine. There are people that need your support. I did need it, and now you’ve given it to me. Let’s play hockey.
You’re in the NHL. You think you’re Superman. You have to tell yourself those things. I felt really bad for like three to four months. I didn’t know what was going on, and then I found out what was going on and that was tough. But then I felt better. When I felt good I said, “Let me play.” And they didn’t for a little bit, which was probably good call. Then when I got back, everything kind of settled back into normal, which was great.
It’s a big thing to maybe help people that are going through it. That’s a real pleasure of mine. I think that’s a gift for me to be able to talk to some people that are going through it a little bit right now, and just give them my perspective.
I know Jason Blake reached out to me. And then really, really did help me. He had CML like I did. That was like one of the best phone calls I ever had. because it. I was like, “Alright enough pouting.” We talked like 45 minutes. I was in my car, and I’d forget I was in the in my driveway. I wasn’t gonna hang up until he did because I asked him 300 questions, and he stuck with me the whole time.
ESPN: Do you think you’ll be that guy? Like, if you hear of a player get some sort of diagnosis, do you think you’ll be the guy who picks up the phone?
Boyle: I wanna be. I wanna be better at it, because there’s been times where I’ve not done it right away. We could all be better at those things, I think. If you’ve been through it or you haven’t, everybody’s been through something. I know how much it meant to me. You’re not annoying them. It matters even if they don’t get back to you. It’s well worth the time.