NEWARK, N.J. — As Brian Boyle stood at his locker room stall, draped in an army camouflage jacket awarded to a New Jersey Devil player after each game for sticking up for his teammates, Boyle talked about inspiration.
Boyle had just scored in the Devils’ 3-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks, Boyle’s second goal of the season.
“I’ll probably remember it for a while because this day, start-to-finish, has been pretty inspiring for me with the people we’ve seen here, and the fan reaction,” Boyle said.
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He was the last Devils player to meet with the media, having been tied up earlier with postgame television obligations. While Boyle remained on the ice, and addressed the sell-out Prudential Center crowd that chanted his name, his teammates also talked about inspiration. They talked about Boyle.
“He’s been an inspiration to all of us all year,” Taylor Hall said.
“He’s been an important part of it on and off the ice,” Cory Schneider said, “and with everything that has gone on the first few months here, it’s almost hard to believe.”
Chant is Brian Boyle pic.twitter.com/c7DqffWngb
— Neal McHale (@nealmchale) November 25, 2017
And then Boyle sauntered into the locker room, the media gathered around his lavender nameplate, specially outfitted for a special occasion that Boyle made all the more special with his goal.
Earlier that day, Boyle sat in his locker, his 6-7 frame, which normally towers above mere mortals, hunched in the crowd. But Boyle has shown his mortality the past few months, and a vulnerability rarely seen from athletes. It’s what has made his story so inspiring — the true ethos of sports, and what makes them so fantastic.
What if Boyle scored that night? What if his fairytale story took another otherworldly turn?
“I hope I do score a couple of goals,” Boyle said. “It’s been a while.”
But no one could have scripted that hours later, with the Devils hosting their Hockey Fights Cancer awareness night, and Boyle, some two months removed from being diagnosed with chronic myeloid/myelogenous leukemia, would score a goal during a game that brings attention to and celebrates the fight so many are going through, including Boyle.
“I’ve only got two. I’d like to have more to be honest with you,” Boyle said postgame, his sense of humor shining through. “It’s always a process, you try to contribute, and last game was my best.”
In Brian Boyle’s #NJDevils stall hangs this name plate. pic.twitter.com/tELKyxkzkM
— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) November 25, 2017
Here was Boyle, a victim, a patient, a fighter, just like so many people in this country and around the world who face the cruel battle cancer forces them into.
“What he’s been through, what his family has been through, it’s really cool to see him not only playing but playing well, and really enjoying himself here,” said Hall, who had a goal and two assists on Friday, including a secondary assist on Boyle’s goal. It’s cool to see, it puts a lot of things in perspective for us as hockey players, and on a night like tonight where it’s Hockey Fights Cancer night to see him score, and here the chants after, it’s awesome.”
After Boyle beat Jacob Markstrom on the power play, he skated to the boards, pointed to the sky, and made his way over to the bench. As his goal was being announced, the crowd in a frenzy, something special happened. Those in attendance, holding up their “I fight for signs,” many with Boyle’s name scribbled across the front, began to chant his name.
BRI-AN BOY-LE … BRI-AN BOY-LE
“And it got a little dusty again,” Boyle said.
As a culture we deify athletes because they do what we cannot. Be it on the court, the field, or the ice, they are capable of acts that we ourselves are not. The sum creates a drama and theater that captivates us, but ultimately makes for trivial plotlines with insignificant consequences.
But here is Boyle, a beacon of hope and humility, scoring a goal on Hockey Fights Cancer night because of course he did, while maintaining this is about so much more than him, because it is.
“Seeing from that first day of training camp when you heard the news, and then here we are only two-and-a-half months later, and he’s scoring goals, and playing hockey, and just something you thought would never happen,” said Schneider, who was a teammate of Boyle’s at Boston College from 2004 to 2007 before they were reunited this offseason in New Jersey. “It’s a testament to where we are in our fight against cancer, and it’s a testament to him as a person and what he can overcome.”
Boyle missed the first 10 games of the regular season, recuperating from his largely treatable bone marrow cancer. Three of Boyle’s grandparents died due to cancer. His father Arthur is a cancer survivor.
“It’s a disease that doesn’t fight fair,” Boyle said.
Luckily for many, Boyle is ready to fight back, and stand hand-in-hand, hear-in-heart with those battling.
He’s ready to stand with people like 8-year-old Abdiel Collazo, the Devils’ special guest coach for the day on Friday. Collazo was diagnosed with leukemia at age three.
In the middle of that #NJDevils huddle is 8-year-old Abdiel Collazo, working on the white board. He’s the team’s guest for its Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness night. pic.twitter.com/KlYGJqXPcD
— Evan Sporer (@ev_sporer) November 24, 2017
“Just imagine what he has to go through during the holidays with the family, and if he has siblings, what they’re seeing,” Boyle said hours before the game. “It affects everybody, and like I’ve said: It’s not fair. It’s not fair when kids have to go through this, it’s not fair when the parents have to try to explain it to a different kid in the family; explain what’s wrong with your brother or sister, or explain to the brother or sister why they’re not feeling well.”
When the pregame ceremonies began Friday night, there was Collazo, standing on the next bench to Boyle, living, breathing, finding some sense of normalcy.
“Hopefully they can continue to fight and have hope,” Boyle said. “Hope and faith are some of the biggest ingredients to having success in this battle, and hopefully I can be a voice to urge people.”
As much as Boyle is fascinating on the ice because he possesses the height of an NBA player with the foot speed, touch and skill of a wide receiver, doing it all on ice skates, what he’s doing now is hypnotizing for a far more humane reason.
We all need heroes to root for. On Friday, a little boy saw that it’s possible to overcome, and that in his fight, he has friends and comrades, those who can relate and those who can show him what toughness really means.
We like sports because they’re entertaining, because we can be enthralled by a highlight and dazzled by an athletic feat that makes us shake our head.
We love sports because there’s an escapism factor, a tunnel we can jump down that helps us forget about our every day struggles. But Boyle doesn’t want us to forget, and doesn’t want us to treat him any differently. He doesn’t want credit or admiration, praise or special treatment.
Boyle wants to be normal. He wants to live his everyday life like we all want to, while his routines are a bit more grandiose than the rest of that. But nevertheless, he wants what’s his, what he knows, what he’s earned.
“He’s trying to move past it as much as he can where he just wants to be one of the guys and just get on with his career, but it obviously is still very personal and now to him, and recent,” Schneider said.
It’s why Boyle himself is an inspiration, and why his story is one we should cherish.
“This is a moment where people are less fortunate,” Boyle said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less fortunate in ways we normally think of but they miss holidays, they miss fun things to do; they miss being kids, a lot of them. 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, that’s kind of what is my new responsibility.”