Boyle is not alone in fighting cancer and playing hockey

When Phil Kessel got over the initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer and had surgery, he asked doctors, ”When can I play?”

When Jason Blake was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, he had the choice of taking a chemotherapy pill or having a bone marrow transplant that would cause him to miss a full season. He chose the pill and got back on the ice.

After his cancer diagnosis last month, New Jersey Devils forward Brian Boyle quickly turned his attention to playing hockey again. He will join a group of NHL players who played with cancer or after beating the disease, including Kessel, Blake, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta, former Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.

”This (stuff) rocks your world,” said Blake, who played six more seasons after being diagnosed with CML, the same type of bone marrow cancer Boyle is now fighting. ”It’s tough. I think it doesn’t matter how old you are, who you are. When someone says you have cancer, it definitely turns your world upside down.”

Now 44 and retired, Blake reached out to Boyle last month to offer his support. Blake said if his situation had come up five years earlier, doctors would’ve given him a 50/50 chance of living five to seven more years and is glad Boyle can benefit from even more advanced technology.

Blake said medication ”shocked my system” and made him lose a lot of weight. He still feels tired but was glad to have his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates and hockey to distract him from his battle with cancer when he wasn’t with his wife and three children.

”That’s the one positive or plus that every time I went to the rink, you kind of just forget about it,” Blake said. ”Those are distractions, and those are good distractions in this case. I understand what (Boyle) is going through, but I understand the person that he is, he’s a character guy and I know that he’ll get through this no problem.”

Kessel said Boyle has a great support system from his family, teammates and players around the league.

”Having a positive attitude toward the fight is important,” Kessel said. ”He needs to listen to the professionals and do whatever you can to return to the game.”

Kessel was found to have testicular cancer at age 19 and recently partnered with Cigna on the NHL’s ”Every Save Counts” program to raise awareness and money for cancer research. After noticing a lump and having surgery early in his rookie season in 2006-07, Kessel was back on the ice in 11 days.

”I love the game and I knew that because I was in good shape that this would help me in returning as quickly as I could,” Kessel said. ”I didn’t want to miss any games. I was fortunate that I came back as soon as I did.”

Longtime coach and general manager Bryan Murray, who lost his battle with colon cancer this past summer at age 74, said he wanted early detection to be part of his legacy. Nephew Tim Murray, a former Buffalo Sabres GM, was one of several people around hockey who immediately got a colonoscopy.

Kessel hopes he can have the same effect.

”If partnering with Cigna to share my personal health story can encourage others to get a check-up with their doctor and potentially save a life, that’s a huge win for me,” said Kessel, who has won the Stanley Cup with Maatta for Lemieux’s Penguins each of the past two seasons. ”Being a voice for early detection and regular check-ups will always be my priority.”

Lemieux missed two months after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993 at age 27 and then took a leave of absence because of fatigue brought on by radiation treatments. Upon his return, ”Super Mario” led the league with 69 goals, 92 assists and 161 points and won the Hart Trophy as MVP.

Koivu missed most of 2001-02 with a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, set a new career high with 71 points the next year and played 11 more NHL seasons. Maatta, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014, returned two weeks after surgery.

”When I found out I had a tumor, it’s scary,” Maatta said. ”It’s a scary word. Every situation’s different. There are different stages, and mine was really harmless and easy to take out. … The more we found out about it, the less scary it was for me. I was lucky with that.”

Lemieux, Kessel, Blake, Koivu and Maatta provide examples for Boyle that he can not only keep playing but at a high level.

”I’m expecting to live my life, to live a normal life,” Boyle said. ”Hopefully the season can go on as normal, as regular as possible. We don’t have to be asking about it all the time. And if I suck one night, it’s because I sucked, not because of any other reason and hopefully if that’s the biggest issue, then that’s a good thing.”

HOCKEY AND POLITICS

Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown on Saturday night became the first hockey player to engage in a national anthem protest when he stood on the bench with his fist raised in the air. Brown said he received death threats and racist remarks on Twitter after his protest but defended his decision to bring light to ”police brutality, racial injustice and inequality” in the U.S.

”I know it may not sit well with everyone, but to truly make change in this world we must be able to be pushed outside of our comfort zone,” Brown said on Twitter. ”I want young minorities to see that what they may be going through is not being ignored by the hockey community.”

The Cup champion Penguins visited President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday, reiterating that it wasn’t about politics. Trump mostly stuck to hockey, and coach Mike Sullivan thought the ceremony went well.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 7; Assists: Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington), 8; Points: Kuznetsov, 8; Time on ice: Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis), 27:02. Goals-against average: Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus), 0.48; Save percentage: Bobrovsky, .985.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators on Saturday night visit the Chicago Blackhawks, who they swept in the first round of the playoffs last spring.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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Projected Lines

Tampa Bay Lightning

Nikita KucherovBrayden PointTyler Johnson

Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosChris Kunitz

Alex Killorn — Matthew Peca — Yanni Gourde

Michael Bournival — Cedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Jake DotchinAnton Stralman

Mikhail SergachevDan Girardi

Braydon CoburnAndrej Sustr

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

NHL on NBCSN: ‘Out of sync’ Lightning look to end three-game losing skid against ‘Hawks

Chicago Blackhawks

Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsAnthony Duclair

Patrick SharpNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane

Alex DeBrincatArtem AnisimovRyan Hartman

Tomas Jurco — David Kampf — Vinnie Hinostroza

Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle

Erik Gustafsson — Brent Seabrook

Michal KempnyConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Jeff Glass

Are Penguins making the right call with Sprong demotion?

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After being a healthy scratch for two games and seemingly being in the doghouse since at least Jan. 17, Daniel Sprong is headed back to the AHL.

To some degree, the move was made because it seems like Bryan Rust is getting ready to return to the mix after being sidelined since Dec. 27. Still, it’s a frustrating development for those who believe in Sprong’s potential as the 46th pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.

All of the 20-year-old’s points came in one game, as Sprong scored two goals and one assist against the Islanders on Jan. 5. He went without a point in his other seven appearances in the NHL this season, with six coming during his latest stint.

Sprong was in the double digits in ice time each night until the Penguins’ loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 17, when he was glued to the bench from the second period on. Considering his lack of production in general, it’s understandable that head coach Mike Sullivan is more reactive to mistakes.

Certain details make the move more debatable, though.

For those who believe that Ryan Reaves‘ role is antiquated, it must be frustrating to see Sprong get demoted. Reaves has been averaging less than seven minutes per game (6:41) despite taking a spot in the lineup for 49 contests. Pittsburgh is in a life-or-death battle for a playoff spot, and many believe that his presence (and the first rounder they gave up to acquire him) is a waste for the Penguins.

The Pens also seem like they’re taking a questionable all-or-nothing approach with Sprong.

Sprong’s most common even-strength linemates (by far) were Sidney Crosby and Dominik Simon, via Natural Stat Trick. Maybe Sprong isn’t quite the right fit for Crosby at this point in his career, but there has to be at least a chance that he could provide more punch for the Penguins’ lineup than someone like Reaves lower in the lineup?

His possession stats have been solid in a small sample size and he hasn’t been shy, firing just less than three shots on goal per game (22 SOG in eight games). Couldn’t the Penguins find room for Rust and Sprong?

These are questions at least some Penguins media members and fans are asking right now, but the bottom line is that the team clearly believes that Reaves is a difference-maker. If Sprong is going to rank as one as well, it sounds like he’ll need to earn his next chance first.

We’ll see how the Sprong-less Penguins fare against the Carolina Hurricanes in a pretty important game on Tuesday. In other Penguins news, Matt Murray was overwhelmed by the support he received from his team and teammates following his father’s death.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Troubling injury news for Bruins’ McAvoy, Lightning’s Palat

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Monday brought some tough injury news around the NHL. Let’s hit some of the bigger bits beyond Jaden Schwartz figuring to give the St. Louis Blues a boost.

  • Scary news for Boston Bruins star rookie Charlie McAvoy: he’s expected to miss about two weeks after undergoing a procedure to “treat an abnormal heart rhythm.” According to the statement from team Dr. David Finn, his issues were originally discovered on Nov. 26.

The full statement is really something:

Charlie McAvoy underwent a successful procedure today at the Massachusetts General Hospital to treat an abnormal heart rhythm.

Following the Bruins game on November 26, 2017, Charlie told team physicians that he experienced heart palpitations during the game. Subsequently he underwent an evaluation, which diagnosed him with a supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). The type of SVT Charlie has is not considered to be dangerous to his health but can recur at any time and causes significant symptoms.

After consultation with team physicians, as well as experts in this type of heart condition, Charlie decided to have the condition treated with a procedure called an ablation. The decision to have the procedure done at this time is due to a high probability of recurrence. During the period from the initial occurrence ‪through Saturday’s game, Charlie was cleared to play by the medical team and was monitored closely.

He will be monitored overnight at Mass General and the expected recovery period is two weeks.

Such issues only make McAvoy’s rookie season that much more impressive. His ice time remains robust, with an average of 22:06 per night in 14 December games and 21:32 per game in eight January contests.

Here’s hoping that the procedure takes care of McAvoy’s issues over the long haul. He’ll be sidelined for the 2018 All-Star Game, and it sounds like Morgan Rielly will not be available either, so the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith makes a good point in wondering who will replace Victor Hedman as the Atlantic Division’s third defenseman at the 2018 All-Star Game.

Could we see the latest slap in the face for Habs GM Marc Bergevin in Mikhail Sergachev being the guy to take Hedman’s spot?

[Bruins are red-hot, to the point of maybe giving the Lightning a run.]

  • McAvoy’s heart issues are quite scary, but if recovery windows work out, the Tampa Bay Lightning might actually suffer from worse news on Monday.

On what Bolts head coach Jon Cooper deemed a “non-hockey play” with Jared Spurgeon, Ondrej Palat suffered an injury that could sideline him for as long as two months.

“I won’t dig too much into that other than that’s a huge loss for us on a complete non-hockey play that didn’t have to take place,” Cooper said, via the team website.

This post details the injury, including footage of the hit.

  • Finally, the New Jersey Devils will lose Taylor Hall for what sounds like a couple games. It doesn’t sound like a long-term problem, but it’s reasonable to at least wonder if his presence at the All-Star Game might be threatened.

Hmm. Considering how important Hall is to a Devils team that might be in for a real battle to hold onto its current playoff spot, it’s fair to ask if he would be better off getting rest.

For more on the All-Star Game, read up on how the skills competition will be different here.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL announces details of 2018 All-Star Skills Competition

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We know who’s going to Tampa this week for the 2018 NHL All-Star Game, and now we know what events will make up this year’s Skills Competition.

On Saturday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN), there will be six events focusing on individuality, with the winning player taking home $25,000 for each victory. The NHL Department of Player Safety will choose the players for each event. Sadly, it doesn’t look like Zdeno Chara or Shea Weber will be making the trip, which means the Hardest Shot will have a new winner for the first time since Sheldon Souray and Adrian Aucoin shared the title in 2004.

So Hardest Shot is back along with Fastest Skater, and there will be two new events, one old standard with a new look and one brought back for the first time since 2008. Here’s a rundown:

TWEAKED

Accuracy Shooting: “Eight players will compete in the Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™, a timed event where a shooter is positioned 25 feet from the goal line and shoots pucks at five LED targets located in the net. On the referee’s whistle, one of the five LED targets will randomly light up for three seconds and the player will attempt to hit the lighted target. Hit targets will be taken out of the random sequencing and if the target is not hit within three seconds, the next target will be lighted. The clock stops when the player has successfully hit all five targets, the player that hits all five targets in the fastest time will be crowned the winner of the Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™. If there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.”

No longer will players get to pick which targets to hit. It will all be done randomly and they’ll need some quick thinking in order to take out all five.

Puck Control Relay: “Eight players will compete in the Gatorade NHL Puck Control Relay™, a timed single-round event that includes three skills: (1) Stickhandling, where a skater controls a puck through a series of eight pucks in a straight line; (2) Cone Control, where a skater controls a puck through a series of eight cones in a zig-zag formation; and (3) Gates, where a skater approaches a gate and is required to shoot or otherwise guide the puck through the lighted rung of a gate. Each skill must be completed before moving on to the next skill. The referee’s whistles will signal completion of each skill and the player to complete the three skills in the fastest time is deemed the winner of the Gatorade NHL Puck Control Relay™. If there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.”

NEW

Passing Challenge: “Eight players will compete in the Dunkin’ Donuts NHL Passing Challenge™, which consists of three skills over one round, including  (1) Target Passing, where each player must complete four successful passes to targets that light up in a random sequence; (2) Give and Go, where each player must successfully complete the four required passes through a course set up in the neutral zone; and (3) Mini Nets, where each player must complete one pass over a barricade and into each of four mini nets, as well as an additional pass into the game net. Each skill must be completed before a player moves on to the next. The referee’s whistle signals completion of each skill. The player to complete all three skills in the fastest time is deemed the winner of the Dunkin’ Donuts NHL Passing Challenge™, and if there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.”

[NHL reveals 2018 All-Star Game rosters; who missed out?]

Save Streak: “Five goalies and all 36 skaters will participate in the GEICO NHL Save Streak™, a shootout grouped by division where goalies compete to make the most consecutive saves. Each goalie will face one opposing division and a minimum of nine scoring attempts. Each scoring attempt is officiated in accordance with NHL shootout rules and begins on the referee’s whistle. Players from each division will shoot in numerical order, lowest to highest, with the divisional captain shooting ninth. A goalie’s round at the GEICO NHL Save Streak™ cannot end with a save – if the divisional captain’s shot is saved, the goalie will continue to face shooters until a goal is scored. If the goalie makes a save on the divisional captain’s shot, the order of shooters to follow is the same as at the original order. The goalie with the longest consecutive save streak during his time in net is the winner of the GEICO NHL Save Streak™. If there is a tie for longest consecutive save streak, the goalie with the highest total saves made during his round will be crowned the winner.”

Where’s the fun for the goalies? We need to get them doing something other than stopping shots. Let’s get them back to trying to score, hitting targets down the ice like they were outlet passes or, hey, why not bring back the goalie race?

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who are celebrating their 25th season, and the city of Tampa will host the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend. The League’s midseason showcase will take place at AMALIE Arena and will include the 2018 GEICO NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Saturday, Jan. 27 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS) and 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday, Jan. 28 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.