Friday, September 21, 2018
  • Lightning Strikes

Jones: Brian Boyle was the heartbeat of NHL All-Star Weekend

TAMPA – Brian Boyle waited his whole life to play in an NHL All-Star Game.

When the call finally came, he said no.

There was no way he was going to head off to Tampa Bay for a weekend of hockey fun in the sun while his 2-year-old son was lying in a hospital bed back in Boston.

It took the best teammate he ever had to convince him to play.

"My wife,'' Boyle said, choking back the tears. "My greatest teammate. She convinced me to come here.''

Tampa Bay's All-Star Weekend was full of special memories, from the Stanley Cup crashing Gasparilla to Lightning star Nikita Kucherov showing off his dazzling skills to his home crowd. Tampa Bay did itself proud.

But this All-Star Weekend belonged to the guy who wasn't even supposed to be here. And not just because of his son.

Boyle is lucky to be alive.

Just last summer, Boyle, 33, signed with the New Jersey Devils, after spending most of the past three seasons with the Lightning. Life was good. Until he got horrible news. He had cancer.

Boyle was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. The prognosis was good. Still: cancer.

"Sure, it's scary'' Boyle said, "But I knew I was going to be okay.''

Just weeks later, Boyle's 2-year-old son, Declan, had a rash on his chin that seemed strange. Doctors said it was arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a disorder in the vein that disrupts blood flow.

"We had a scare,'' Boyle said. "We thought it was a tumor. He has had to go in for some operations.''

Declan is going to be fine, but it's hard to think about hockey when your 2-year-old is lying motionless on a hospital bed. The latest procedure was just last week. When Boyle got on the plane to come to Tampa on Friday, his son was still unconscious from a surgery.

"He was intubated for a day and half,'' Boyle said. "He's out now. He's better. But that's a scary situation seeing your kid unconscious and being operated on. We've gone through that four times now.''

That's why he balked when the NHL called last week and asked him to replace an injured player on the All-Star roster. It would have been a dream come true if he wasn't living through a nightmare.

"When the call came, I couldn't believe it,'' Boyle said. "It was a range of emotions. The hardest part of this year has been my little boy.''

Boyle would not have come to Tampa Bay unless his wife, Lauren, urged him to go.

"It's pretty special being to be here, but it's tough because I want to be there, too,'' Boyle said. "But we made the decision to come and the decision was a little harder than we thought it might be. But we think it's the right thing.''

The people of Tampa Bay are certainly glad he came, and it's a testament to Boyle for just how much he is beloved in this town. He was only here three seasons. And, while this certainly isn't meant to be disrespectful, he is not an elite player.

He's a third-liner. A grinder. A lunch-pail, hard-hat guy who punches a clock every game and works his tail off. He doesn't score a ton of goals. He doesn't pile up assists. And while he isn't afraid to drop the gloves now and then, he's certainly not a fighter.

Yet he's a winner, and does all the things it takes to win hockey games, like winning faceoffs and blocking shots and playing defense and providing leadership and energy. That made him as popular as any player who has worn the Lightning uniform.

During this weekend, other than the Lightning players selected for the All-Star Game, no one was cheered louder than Boyle. He teared up when the crowd gave him a standing ovation before Saturday's skills competition.

"It's just a great feeling, I can't even begin to tell you,'' Boyle said. "It's indescribable. I can't even put it into words how much it means to me. I just want to tell the fans in Tampa Bay how much I appreciate it.''

He got another standing ovation before Sunday's game. When interviewed on the bench during Sunday's game, he told the crowd, "I can't thank the fans enough.''

Fans then began chanting his name.

"I hope they know by now,'' Boyle said of his love for the fans in Tampa Bay. "And it was a tremendous honor to be here.''

He emphasized "here,'' a reminder of how much Tampa Bay has meant to him. And a reminder of how much playing in Sunday's game meant.

His father was at the game. So was his brother. So were in his in-laws. His wife was back up north with Declan, but she sent him videos of Declan watching his daddy play on Sunday.

"I'm sure she's pretty tired, she's been through quite a bit,'' Boyle said. "But she was watching, cheering me on. She's very proud of me. She gives me the most support out of anybody. It's a good feeling to have a teammate in life like that. It's why I'm here.''

Who knows if Boyle will ever be here again? An All-Star Game, that is. As far as Boyle's health, all looks good. He takes a pill in the morning and another at night. He says he feels fine. Clearly it's not impacting his play.

But even if this ends up being his only All-Star Game, that would be fine with Boyle.

"I'm just happy I got the chance to do it,'' Boyle said. "I appreciate everything. I appreciate every day in this league. I don't take it for granted. I'm trying to make it last as long as I can.''

For Boyle, it will last a lifetime.

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones