Life and death: Leafs' Brian Boyle has seen plenty of both
Maple Leafs forward Brian Boyle skates during practice at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto on March 5, 2017. (Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun)
Imagine being a wee lad of two, gathered with your brothers and sisters on a staircase watching your father kneeling on the downstairs floor, attempting in vain to revive your lifeless infant sibling while your mom is shrieking in horror.
Imagine being a teenager, just 14 years of age, and being informed that cancer is eating away at your dad — only to subsequently have him shock his doctors with the type of unbelievable recovery you still refer too as “a miracle.”
Then imagine, for a moment, that as a recently married man, you find out that a close friend — someone who had been in your wedding party and a kindred sprit you considered to be “like a little brother” — had suddenly drowned, just hours after hosting a charity event.
Brian Boyle does not have to imagine these things. He’s lived them. All of them.
Ask the recently acquired Maple Leaf about the roller-coaster ride that has been the first 32 years of his life and he shrugs his shoulders. Yes, he admits, there have been plenty of times that tragedy has tugged on his heart strings. But, in the overall scheme of things, isn’t that just part of the journey we all go through?
“Yeah, there’s been some pain, but everybody has their share of it,” he reflected during a recent sitdown with Postmedia. “You never know what is going on in someone else’s personal life.”
Besides, in his mind, there have been far more ups than downs. There was his dad’s incredible comeback from disease. There is his marriage to model Lauren Bedford. There is his two-year-old son, Declan. There is the anticipation of the couple’s second child which is on the way. And there is the reality of having your dream of one day playing in the National Hockey League become reality.
And, of course, there is the priceless experience of being part of a family of 13 kids.
“What were times like Christmas and Thanksgiving like? Chaos,” he laughs, recalling his childhood days in Hingham, Mass. “There was noise. There was wrapping paper all over. There was yelling and laughing. And there was a lot of love. Those are some of my favourite memories.
“We were spoiled. I don’t know how my parents did it, but their focus was always on family.”
These days, Brian Boyle has a new family. A new hockey family — the Toronto Maple Leafs. And in a dressing room full of inexperienced, uber-talented kids, general manager Lou Lamoriello says the intangibles the well-grounded Boyle brings to the table are valuable additions that complement his on-ice talents.
“Brian knows what his role is and he’s always made the most of it,” Lamoriello says. “We needed to improve our fourth line and we did that. We also brought in character at the same time.”
In the end, that character that Brian Boyle offers has been forged as much by the wins and losses he’s experienced off the ice as on it.
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Joseph Anthony Boyle “could have been my best bud,” Brian Boyle reflects all these years later.
Only they never had the chance. Joseph never made it to his two month birthday, passing away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in November of 1986.
It was young Brian’s first brush with death. Not that he remembers much of it.
“I’ll be reminded now and then of the circumstances, but I was pretty young,” he says, more than three decades later.
Where it really hits home, he admits, is when he looks at Declan these days.
“My son is the about the same age as I was when Joseph died,” Boyle says. “I can’t imagine the hurt he would experience if he had to go through something like that.”
It says a lot about the Boyle clan that parents Artie and Judy forged ahead with their family, even with the sense of loss continuing to gnaw at their souls.
Brian was the couple’s seventh child, Joseph the eighth. Three years later, Julianne was born. No. 9. And for her birth, all seven kids were in the delivery room including young Brian, wearing a hospital gown and cap.
During a 2014 interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Artie explained the logic.
“My wife said that if these kids can see death, they can see life,” he said.
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In 1999, it appeared as if the Boyle kids would see death again.
Artie had been diagnosed with cancer. Doctors removed one of his kidneys only to discover the heinous disease had spread to his lungs. Artie described it as a “death sentence.”
“He kept the severity of the situation from me,” Brian says now. “Otherwise, I really would have been floored. It was bad enough as it is.”
Perhaps seeking divine intervention, Artie heeded the advice of brother-in-law Kevin Gill and pal Rob Griffin and accompanied the two to Bosnia and Herzegovina to the pilgrimage site Medjugorje, where he spent a week of prayer and worship. When Artie returned home, doctors were stunned: All traces of the cancer had disappeared.
“A 100% miracle,” Brian says now, some 17 years afterwards.
Upon being given such an improbable clean bill of health, Artie, once the owner of his own trucking company, took a job with the development faction of the Archdiocese of Boston. He also wrote a book on his experience entitled Six Months To Live.
Do you believe in miracles? The Boyles certainly do.
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There was no such miracle for Corey Griffin.
It had been Corey’s dad Rob who had made the trip overseas with Artie to Medjugorje. Now, more than a decade later, Rob Griffin was on the other end of the line with some devastating news for Brian.
Corey, one of Brian’s best friends, had drowned. Just hours earlier on this mid-August day of 2014, Corey had raised $100,000 at an ALS event on Nantucket Island. At the after-party, he decided to dive into the harbour. He was seen bobbing to the surface once. That was it.
“You get a call at 3 a.m., like that and you’re in such disbelief,” Boyle recalls, his voice cracking with emotion. “It’s still hard to swallow.”
Corey Griffin was just 27.
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If adversity makes you stronger, then you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone with more physical and emotional muscle than 6-foot-7 Brian Boyle.
Or, for that matter, loyalty.
If Maple Leafs players want to know just how much Boyle supports his family — whether it be the blood or the hockey variety — they should heed this following story in order to know he has their backs.
After being prodded by his dad to join him in a recreational hockey game one day, Brian became irked at a yappy opponent who kept taking shots at Artie.
Finally, Brian had enough. So, he responded physically to the chirping pest.
“I took a run at the guy,” Brian says. “Everyone laughed except my dad, who yelled at me. He said I shouldn’t do that, then he still felt like coming to my aid. I could have had him.
“I was just sick of that guy (the opponent), so I got rid of him.”
It takes a lot to get Brian Boyle to lose his cool. This is, after all, the same guy who took Lauren to church on their first date.
Perhaps the most telling endorsement of Brian Boyle is the cache of compliments coming from those he’s played with in New York and Tampa, applauding what a great teammate he is. The young Leafs will see that first-hand again this week when he returns to Tampa to play the Lightning on Thursday, the first time he’ll face the team that traded him to Toronto less than two weeks ago.
“It might be a bit strange when I get on the ice there, but once the game starts, you just play,” he says. “I’ve been through this before.
“We’re in a great spot here (with the Leafs). Everybody should be feeling a bit younger. We’ve got a good shot at getting into the playoffs. You try not to take it for granted.
“It’s just the most fun hockey there is.”
And if it means going through his ex-Tampa teammates to do it, well, so be it.
MEET THE BOYLE BUNCH ... ALL 13 OF THEM
Jennifer, 42 — Doctor, mother of eight.
Artie Jr., 41 — Special Olympics competitor, autistic.
Michelle, 40 — Works in real estate, mother of eight
Christopher, 38 — In seminary
Brendan, 35 — Works in sales
Kathryn, 33 — Works with archdiocese of Boston
Brian, 32 — Centre, Toronto Maple Leafs
Joseph — Passed away at 2 months in November 1986
Julianne, 27 — Assistant director at Artie Jr.’s group home
Gabrielle, 25 — Works in sales, published singer/songwriter/guitarist
Timothy, 23 — Defenceman, Wheeling Nailers. ECHL, former 2012 Sens draft pick
Nicholas, 21 — Enjoys golf/hockey
Andrew, 19 — Former high school golf team captain