After a Cancer Diagnosis, the Devils’ Brian Boyle Is Thriving

“For the most part,” Boyle said of his medication, “I haven’t really had any side effects.”

But the diagnosis initially put his hockey future in doubt.

“There was a waiting period where we didn’t know what was going on,” Boyle said. “We knew it was some form of leukemia, but we didn’t know what kind. When you get a scare like that, it really wakes you up.”

For reassurance, he had the example of Jason Blake, a former Islanders forward who received the same diagnosis in 2007, as he was about to join the Toronto Maple Leafs. Blake was treated but never missed a game, playing in the league for five more seasons.

Boyle missed only 10 games, and the rebuilt Devils, one of the surprising teams in the N.H.L., had eight wins when he returned. Boyle scored his first goal of the season on Nov. 9 against Edmonton and teared up as he celebrated. He said in an interview with the MSG Network that it was the first time he had cried after scoring a goal.

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Boyle celebrating his first goal as a Devil, in a game against the Edmonton Oilers this month. Boyle said it was the first time he had ever cried after scoring a goal.

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Elsa/Getty Images

At 6-foot-7, 244 pounds, Boyle can help a team in unglamorous ways, including killing penalties, winning face-offs in the defensive zone and jousting with defensemen for power-play rebounds. The Devils signed him as a free agent largely because he could play a supporting role and provide veteran leadership, but he has also become an inspiration.

“You definitely notice him out there,” Devils defenseman Damon Severson said, adding: “He never really gets down. He’s always pushing forward.”

Boyle said the uncertainty gave him a different perspective.

“After you’re diagnosed, you’ll never know how you’ll respond to treatment,” he said. “I was responding, but I had an enlarged spleen and a couple of other things going on, so I couldn’t play. You can say this about anything in life, but nothing was guaranteed. It was a little scary.”

Boyle has experience handling tribulation. He switched his jersey number to 11 from 22 before joining Tampa Bay in honor of his close friend Corey Griffin, 27, who drowned in a diving accident off Nantucket Island in 2014. That was Griffin’s jersey number at Boston College, where Boyle also played.

The only warning Boyle had about the leukemia was a “steady decline” in his energy level, and it wasn’t enough to alter his plans for the season. But a blood test done in a team physical just before training camp revealed the cancer.

Devils goaltender Cory Schneider, who has been a friend of Boyle’s since they were teammates at Boston College, is not surprised by his resilience.

“He’s a guy who’s adapted his game to what has been asked of him,” Schneider said. “He’s turned that into a long career. He’s become a smart, mature player.”

Boyle played parts of two seasons for the Los Angeles Kings before the Rangers acquired him in 2009 for a third-round draft choice. Although he scored only 44 goals in five seasons with the team, he became an integral player, enabling the Rangers to advance to the Stanley Cup finals in 2014, at the end of his final season with the team.

He signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay and helped the Lightning reach the 2015 Stanley Cup finals. Toronto acquired Boyle from the Lightning at the trade deadline last year, specifically to help the young Maple Leafs make the playoffs, and they did.

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Boyle controlling the puck against the Oilers. In his 11 games this season, he is averaging slightly more time on the ice than he has throughout his career.

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Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

With the Devils, Boyle said, he worried about his illness becoming a distraction, because the news media would ask his new teammates for updates on him, a player they hardly knew. When Boyle was cleared to resume workouts, he did so largely on his own.

“They kind of had to carry me on their shoulders for a while,” Boyle said of the Devils, “and I’m thankful for that.”

He said he was also grateful for the support he received from his wife, Lauren, with whom he has a 2-year-old son and an infant daughter, and from his parents, Artie and Judy, who he said, “are ridiculously amazing and wonderful people to have helped through everything.”

Now Boyle just wants to do whatever he can for his fifth N.H.L. team. The Devils are talented but young. They hold second place in their division, but have not made the playoffs since 2012, when they dispatched Boyle and the Rangers in a memorable series to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. They need an old hand.

“One of the biggest things you can see from him is confidence, knowing what it takes to win, how a team should be. It oozes out of him,” Devils Coach John Hynes said of Boyle. “The guy’s played so many playoff games of late, and he’s been around so many winning environments.”

Boyle knows when to raise his voice in a constructive way — and he did that on Nov. 12, when the Devils fell behind Chicago after the first period, 4-2, but rallied for a 7-5 victory.

“That’s what we missed the last couple of years, having some of that in the room,” Hynes said. “Brian brings that. He’s a very outgoing guy, very social, and he’s very bright, but he also knows what it takes to win. He’s been around a long time. He’s not afraid to say it.”

Hynes said he was eager to see what Boyle could do when he had played more games and felt more comfortable.

Boyle has played 11 games since returning, averaging 14 and a half minutes on the ice, about a minute and a half above his career average. In addition to the goal against the Edmonton, he has delivered two assists.

“He’s just happy to get back to what he loves to do, but he also takes it really seriously,” Schneider said. “It’s just so great to have the intensity and emotion he brings. You’d never know what he’d gone through, based on how he’s played. Obviously, he didn’t look for any of this, but he’s handled all of it really well.”

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