The Boyles, by their own account, will be “all over” TD Garden Tuesday night, pockets of family members and packs of hometown friends ready to tuck themselves in every corner of the arena, eager to root for a certain visiting player when the puck drops between the Bruins and the New Jersey Devils.
Brian Boyle knows they will be there, because they are always there, because being born and raised as one of 13 children in Hingham is as much of a guarantee as being born of the local New England hockey scene and playing at Boston College that you never return to the area alone. But as many times as the 33-year-old Boyle has been taken back through his hockey backyard in his 10-year NHL career, this time is different. This year is different. Everything is different.
Or, maybe, it is all the same. Maybe, when Brian scans the stands and sees his father, Artie, it will hit each of them anew just how much they are the same — both frightened by cancer, both fortified by faith, both framed by family, and both, ultimately, freed to take those experiences to a higher call.
For this father and son, passing the torch has so little to do with a shared passion for hockey and so much to do with a shared devotion to their Catholic faith, how a father’s miraculous (truly) recovery from end-stage renal cancer years ago prepared his son to face his own scary diagnosis with similar courage and strength.
“I said to him, ‘God clearly wanted a younger version of me. Sorry, buddy,’ ” Artie said over the phone. “ ‘Sorry this had to happen. You’ve got to make it work. Use this. It’s not about you. Even though you’re sick, it’s really about everyone else. You’ve got to stay positive, beat it, and show people you can do it.’ ”
Artie has been doing it for years. Now it seems it’s Brian’s turn.
. . .
Let’s take this back to last fall. Perhaps you heard about the September announcement that Brian, one of the NHL’s athletic giants at 6 feet 6 inches and 245 pounds, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, routine blood work giving a medical explanation for the fatigue he had been experiencing for weeks.
Maybe you were aware of how immediate treatment kept him off the ice for more than a month, unable to play for a New Jersey team he’d joined as a free agent this past offseason. Maybe you read the headlines or saw the highlights of his November return, taking note of his stirring Devils debut, when his new teammates awarded him the coveted postgame jacket, or sharing the emotion of his first goal, after which he could not stem the tears from streaming down his face.
Maybe you were relieved on Boyle’s behalf in understanding how his condition, a cancer of the bone marrow, is treatable through medication, and how Boyle did indeed respond well to that treatment, now needing only routine visits with his doctor to check his blood work.
And maybe you thought that was the whole story.
It is but one of many layers.
“Honestly, I can’t even begin to even tell you,” said Brian’s wife Lauren, pulling into a doctor’s parking lot to get a flu shot for the younger of their two children, 8-month-old Isabella.
Lauren is careful with her words, as Declan, 2½, can hear the conversation over the speaker phone from the back seat. He is a part of this story, too, diagnosed only three weeks after his father with an abnormal growth on his chin, one that turned out, mercifully, to be noncancerous.
“It’s so emotional,” Lauren said, “and when I say it out loud, I’m like, ‘How is this my life?’ Daily, you just do what you can, make it as normal as you can, as great as you can.
“I’m just so thankful that everyone is here. You definitely feel so loved, situations like these, times like these. And I’m thankful at the end of the day that we have our faith. Without it we wouldn’t have made it.”
Theirs was not a love story by design, but one they describe with a smile as divine intervention. Neither one was looking to get involved in a relationship, he busy focusing on an NHL career, she making her own headlines as Lauren Bedford, successful New York model. Initially content to find friendship and laughs while serving as wingmen for friends who were dating, it was as Lauren listened to Brian talk about Artie that her impression of him began to change.
Brian revealed the story to Lauren, from his teenage obliviousness to wondering why his normally robust dad was so exhausted as to lay his head on the steering wheel following one of Brian’s hockey practices, wondering why so many relatives were flooding their Hingham home to see Artie off on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, to adult comprehension of how his father was saved, returning from the site of reported apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and finding himself cancer-free.
It is the family miracle, one they shared in a 2014 Globe story about the Labor Day, 2000, journey Artie and two close friends took to the hill town in the former Yugoslavia, one Artie would personally relay in his book, “Six Months to Live: Three Guys on the Ultimate Quest for a Miracle.”
As the Globe then recounted, “When he returned from six days in Medjugorje, Boyle made the headlines and news shows because the cancer, which had spread to his lung, had disappeared.
“According to a story in the Globe on Dec. 24, 2000: ‘His cancer may have receded by spontaneous remission, a phenomenon that doctors have recorded before, though only rarely. Or the smaller growths could still develop into something more troubling. But this much is certain: There was a potentially lethal spot on his lung before he traveled to Bosnia in September, and it was gone by the time he got back.’
“Two years later, a CT scan revealed two small spots. They were removed — renal cells that had not grown or spread. On the back of his book, Boyle’s urologist, Dr. Francis McGovern, blurbs: ‘With the severity and progression of Artie’s disease, metastatic renal cell carcinoma, it is difficult for medical science to explain why he is alive today. But, every time I see him, I am sure there is a God.’ ”
As Brian revealed the story to Lauren, love blossomed.
“The younger kids, we were pretty well-protected,” said Brian, who was the seventh child born. “All these people showing up at the house, cousins, uncles, aunts, sending him off on a pilgrimage and I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is going on here? He’s going to be home in a week.’
“I can look back and laugh now, but half a lifetime later, the gravity of it all, I realize it now.”
He absorbed the way his parents, Artie and Judy, held the family together, the way they cared for others more than themselves, the way they turned Artie’s belief in his miracle into lifelong testimony. Artie wrote a book about his experience and speaks regularly to prayer groups, one of which they established together. Judy is the genesis of more prayer chains than the family can count.
“I’m never going to forget how it all went down with my dad,” said Brian. “For me, I remember, I look back on it and you have to, even though you’re the one diagnosed, you have to be sensitive to how other people react. I had to make a game plan.”
He assured his new teammates he would be OK, looking out for them more than they did him. He attacked the medication protocol with the same purpose he’s always had at work, a competitive streak that had served him so well on the ice finding new purpose. He contemplated his worth to his family, fueled by how much he needed to be here for his young children. He turned to those who love him most. He turned to God.
And now, he is ready to say it all out loud. We all know how sports conversations can feel awkward when they turn to religion, but Boyle is willing to engage.
“Earlier in my career, even up to this year, I’ve always felt a responsibility to give glory to God and all the gifts I’ve been given, the fairy tale life I’ve been given,” he said. “But it was uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to segue into it. Honestly, I prayed about it.
“I felt guilty about not doing enough. Then you get cancer and you get all these great opportunities. Yeah, I have leukemia, and no one wants to be dealt that blow, to be in that cancer club. It’s not fun.
“But it’s opened my mind, opened these channels to spread the word. I’m doing well. I lost 10 pounds and I’m skating better than I ever have. It’s a challenge, but we get tested in our faith all the time.”
. . .
Artie Boyle will most definitely be among those 30-plus family members at TD Garden Tuesday night, no doubt recalling all those commutes back and forth to practices and games and tournaments with Brian, a father who emerged from the Bobby Orr generation of Bruins fans passing that devotion onto his sons.
Artie still plays the game to this day, joining buddies on the ice, where they often welcome summertime appearances from Brian and Tim Boyle, a younger son currently in hockey’s minor leagues.
“I tell Brian I’m the ghost of Christmas future, of his hockey future,” Artie said, laughing.
Yet theirs is a bond about so much more than hockey. From father to son, through cancer and faith, so much the same.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.