TAMPA, Fla. — Brian Boyle was wrong.
When it was suggested that he may get the biggest ovation inside Amalie Arena on Saturday night, as the 2018 NHL all-stars were first introduced ahead of the skills competitions, he shook his head slightly.
“They got the four guys here. They’ll be cheering for them and they should be,” Boyle, a 33-year-old forward for the New Jersey Devils, said of the Tampa Bay Lightning fans. “Because those guys are phenomenal players and great people. I’m just happy to be kind of a part of this whole thing.”
Yet he wasn’t just a part. He was at the center of it. When his name was first bellowed over the loudspeaker, every fan inside the arena stood. The ovation stretched to close to 10 seconds and the camera stayed fixed on him, as he smiled, lifted his stick to return the salute and then took a deep breath that lifted his shoulders close to his ears.
Boyle was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in September, which paused his career and made it possible that he would never play hockey again. Now his battle with the disease includes a return to the ice in October, 17 points in 38 games for the Devils, and his first All-Star Game appearance on Sunday, as he replaced teammate Taylor Hall on the Metropolitan Division roster.
The All-Star Weekend’s main event, a three-on-three tournament between the best players from the NHL’s four divisions, starts at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.
“This really is just kind of a pinch-me moment. I can’t believe this is my life. I’m very thankful, I don’t take it for granted, playing in this league,” Boyle said Saturday. “To be here and see all these stars, how humble they are and how supportive they’ve been, for me throughout the year, even today, it’s wild. It really is, I am just trying to enjoy it as best I can.”
The weekend is all the more special since Boyle spent two a half seasons with the Lightning. It is all the more difficult because he can’t share it with his wife, Lauren, and their two children.
His 2-year-old son, Declan, has had his own health complications in the last four months. Declan was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a vein disorder that disrupts normal flow of blood, and Boyle noticed his chin flaring up earlier this week. Doctors have assured Boyle that Declan will be okay and that the AVM is treatable, but Boyle said it is still very difficult to see his son on an operating table.
Declan and Lauren went to Boston Children’s Hospital to see doctors Wednesday, and Boyle planned to join them after the Devils played the Nashville Predators in Newark on Thursday. But that was the same day he got a call from the NHL saying he was selected as an All-Star Game replacement.
Boyle was split. His wife was not.
“So there was a decision to be made,” Boyle said. “At my wife’s urging …”
His voice trailed off. He paused for a few seconds, staring at the table in front of him, and his eyes started to fill with tears.
“She knows that I worked my whole life to play this game, and I just want to do my best,” he continued. “Hopefully we have some clips to show him, and we’ll get some swag. But it’s … yeah … it’s pretty special to be here. It’s tough because I want to be there, too.”
He called Lauren a “rock star” and repeatedly noted that he would not be playing every day for the Devils, or in this All-Star Game, if not for her. His treatment is simple — a multivitamin in the morning and two pills at the beginning and end of each day — and he mostly feels normal. He also feels lucky to be in this situation.
“It was just special to see him come back and play an NHL game this year, never mind the season he’s had,” said Lightning forward Steven Stamkos, a former teammate of Boyle’s in Tampa, on Saturday. “It’s been special to watch, a true inspiration.”
After the skills competition on Saturday, Boyle sat at his locker, sandwiched between New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, typing into his iPhone. He was texting Lauren as soon as he could, and she let him know that Declan was sound asleep.
Earlier in the night, the cheers kept coming, when Boyle took part in a shootout, when he competed in the shot accuracy contest, whenever his face popped onto the big screen hovering above the ice. There was something missing from it all, even with Boyle’s father and one of his brothers looking on from the stands. Declan watches games on TV — he recently pointed out a fight his dad took part in — but Boyle wants to one day relive the All-Star Game with Declan, Lauren and their 8-month-old daughter, Isabella.
There will be an even bigger ovation Sunday, and it is unlikely the crowd will hear Boyle’s name announced above its own screaming. Then he will skate onto the ice, alongside Crosby and Alex Ovechkin and in front of all those adoring fans, for a moment he has worked his entire career to earn.
“I’m 33 years old and I get to go put my skates on and have fun. It’s unbelievable,” Boyle said. “I’m in a fairy-tale life, you meet all sorts of people from different continents and different walks of life. It’s a tremendous blessing for me and again, I won’t take it for granted. Like I said, every year I seem to love it a little bit more.”
This weekend, that love was returned.