NEWARK, NJ — Like the noble and considerate teammate that he is, Devils center Brian Boyle started his question-and-answer session in the Devils locker room by being deferential in talking about the goal he scored tonight, praising defenseman Will Butcher for the influential role he had in setting up the second-period tally that gave New Jersey its second lead of the game.
But Boyle, the members of the media who encircled him in front of his locker after the game and the 16,000-plus fans in the stands all knew tonight’s game, particularly with what it represented, was all about the larger-than-life, 6-foot-7 center and the next steps in his recovery.
New Jersey defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 on Friday on Hockey Fights Cancer night at the Prudential Center, an initiative of the National Hockey League and the Players Association that focuses on raising money and awareness for cancer research. Just two months ago, during the preseason and leading up to the start of the new season with his new team, Boyle was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, a type of bone marrow cancer. The longterm prognosis, given that doctors say that that particular cancer is largely treatable, was good, but that did not make the recovery any less difficult for Boyle, who missed the first 10 games of the season while he was being treated as well as trying to get back into playing shape.
There have been landmark moments since he returned to the ice, like the first NHL game since his treatment, which was also a game against the Canucks in Vancouver on Nov. 1. Eight days later, in a game against Edmonton in Newark, Boyle scored his first goal of the season, a moment which he admitted that he cried after scoring that goal and that that was the first time he had ever cried on the ice after scoring a goal.
Tonight marked the second.
“I was excited,” said Boyle after the game in explaining his emotions after his goal tonight. “Excited to help. After that, and the crowd…I got a little dusty again.”
The majority of fans at the Prudential Center not only were wearing special lavender-hued Devils jerseys, marking the occasion of the Hockey Fights Cancer night in Newark, but were also holding “I Fight For…” placards issued before the game. Many of those placards, which fans could customize and dedicate to people they know who have battled cancer, read “I Fight For Brian Boyle.” After Boyle scored, a loud “Brian Boyle” chant emanated from the crowd, and that chant was just as loud at the end of the game when Boyle skated back onto the ice after being announced as the game’s first star.
“As far as the crowd goes, it’s a pretty special feeling to feel that support,” said Boyle. “It says a lot about the crowd and the fans here in this particular city. I’ve felt the love in other cities, but this has been the way [the Devils fans] have embraced me. I’ve said it countless times, but the fans have reached out. I saw the signs, and it’s a very special feeling.”
Boyle’s goal came on the power play, set up by defenseman Will Butcher speeding through the middle of the ice and putting on a wonderful deke to get past Canucks defenseman Ben Hutton after entering the Vancouver zone. Butcher then found a streaking Boyle, who one-timed his shot into the gaping net past goalkeeper Jacob Markstrom and gave the Devils a 2-1 lead at the 10:17 mark of the second.
When initially asked what his thoughts were about his goal, Boyle did not hesitate to take the attention away from him and put it on the person who set him up.
“I just wanted to get over to Butchie (Butcher),” said Boyle. “What a play.”
After he high-fived his teammates on the Devils bench, Boyle pointed up to the sky in a moment of reflection and thanks.
“I’ve done that every time I’ve been able to get a goal,” said Boyle, who was accompanied by his wife, Lauren, and their children during the ceremonial puck drop. “That’s just giving thanks. I’m very thankful to be able to do what I do. I’ve been given a lot of gifts and blessed with a great life. It’s my dream to play in this league and I’m able to continue to do it, regardless of what else kind of happens. I’m still able to play and I’m very thankful for that.”
Before the game, the Devils players wore those lavender jerseys, which included a “Boyle Strong 11” patch. There has been no doubt that how Boyle has conducted himself throughout his recovery and comeback has been something for each of his teammates to admire.
“I’m sure he wants to just move on and be a guy and play hockey,” said Devils goaltender Cory Schneider, who made 23 saves in the victory. “But it’s hard not to pay attention to him and see him as a guy who’s inspiring the rest of us, and to have his family out there tonight was really special for him, too. Great feeling all around.”
That inspiration has not been lost on the person who has been the source of it, and as Boyle has thought about that more, he now knows the role his status as a professional sports player and role model can play in helping others beat the fight with dealing with cancer.
“Hopefully, they can continue to fight and have hope,” said Boyle. “Hope and faith are some of the biggest ingredients, I think, in having success in this battle. This is a moment where people may be less fortunate, yet it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are less fortunate in certain ways that we normally think of. They miss holidays. They miss fun things to do. They miss being kids, a lot of them. Especially the kids. That’s a tragedy in my eyes that we can continue to try to fight for. If I can inspire people to do that, anybody, you guys, I think that’s kind of my new responsibility.”