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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Appreciating Stamkos after he hit 600 points in Bolts’ blowout of Penguins

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The modern NHL is no stranger to star players missing extended stretches because of injuries, opening the door for “What if?” frustrations.

As glorious as the last couple years have been for Sidney Crosby, the threat of another concussion looms like Michael Myers in the bushes. Connor McDavid lost half of his rookie season. Carey Price has already dealt with serious issues of his own.

Still, you can forgive Steven Stamkos and Tampa Bay Lightning fans for being especially miffed over the years, as his issues have bordered on the freakish. Stamkos has dealt with blood clots, his most recent right knee injury that required surgery, and broke his tibia after taking this bad-luck spill in 2013:

(Even about four years later, it’s still unsettling to watch Stamkos rapidly become aware of how bad his injury was.)

Stamkos has missed playoff time and saw at least two seasons short-circuited by injuries, as he only played in 17 games in 2016-17 and 37 in 2013-14.

Heading into this season, it was reasonable to try to limit expectations; most athletes struggle in the first year after significant surgeries. Maybe Stamkos will hit a wall at some point, but so far, he’s enjoyed the best start of his career, riding shotgun with budding superstar Nikita Kucherov.

It almost seems fitting, then, that Stamkos scored his 600th regular-season point during the Lightning’s 7-1 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even so, it’s resounding that – with all Stamkos has been through – he’s at that level at 27, and he’s done so in 595 games.

Impressive. With this incredible head start of 18 points in nine games, a healthy Stamkos might match or exceed the work he did during his best days earlier in his career. Note how dominant he was from his second through fourth seasons (while Stamkos managed 29 goals and 57 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, his fifth):

2009-10: 51 goals, 95 points

2010-11: 45 goals, 91 points

2011-12: 60 goals, 97 points

The other eye-popping stat from that run: he played in all 82 regular-season games in each of those three campaigns.

For some perspective, during the stretch of 2009-10 to 2011-12, Stamkos’ 283 points ranked second in the NHL, with only Henrik Sedins’ 287 ranking higher. His 156 goals easily led all players for that three-year stretch.

If that’s not enough to make you wonder where a healthy Stamkos might rank among the NHL’s upper echelon, consider this: from his sophomore 2009-10 season through today, he’s third in points-per-game among players who’ve played in at least 200, slightly edging Patrick Kane (1.06):

  1. Sidney Crosby (1.28)
  2. Evgeni Malkin (1.14)
  3. Stamkos (1.07)
  4. Kane (1.06)
  5. Alex Ovechkin (1.03)
  6. Nicklas Backstrom/retired Martin St. Louis (1.01)

As you can see, Stamkos ranks among six active players who’ve averaged at least one point-per-game since 2009-10.

Chances are, Stamkos will cool off mainly because, as great as Kucherov is, he’ll settle down a bit too. The Russian winger currently boasts a 29.4 shooting percentage, nearly doubling his already-impressive career average of 15.1 percent.

Still, it’s plausible that Stamkos could enjoy one of the best seasons of his career, and the interesting wrinkle might be that this stupendous sniper may serve as something of a facilitator (he currently has three goals versus 15 assists).

Now, don’t forget that Kucherov has been the catalyst for this burst, even if Stamkos makes this one of the NHL’s most scintillating symbiotic relationships. Hitting the 600-point milestone is merely a friendly reminder that Stamkos shouldn’t get lost in the elite conversation, and that hockey fans should be very, very happy to have him around.

Just stay a while this time, Stamkos. We like seeing you.

(Many stats via the wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.)

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.

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Throwing Babcock a bone? Leafs bring back Roman Polak

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Sometimes you need to zoom out from a shaky move and appreciate the bigger picture.

Mike Babcock nailed it when he described the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least at times, as dumb and fun. The Leafs currently lead the NHL with 37 goals, one more than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, despite Toronto playing one fewer game. Still, these young Buds also must raise Babcock’s blood pressure at times with their double-edged sword style.

Credit Babcock, then, with mostly embracing what makes this team tick. More rigid coaches would strain against such designs, almost certainly lowering the Maple Leafs’ ceiling in the process.

The Maple Leafs raised some eyebrows on Sunday by handing slow-footed, limited veteran defenseman Roman Polak a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Maple Leafs slumped some shoulders.

None of these Twitter reactions are really off-base, honestly.

Polak, 31, simply isn’t an ideal fit for the modern NHL, and the Maple Leafs are very much embracing the fast, attacking style that’s (delightfully) coming in vogue.

Here’s a working theory, though: even the best coaches (at least right now) have “their guys.”

“Their guys” are often well-traveled, gritty types. Some only help teams in minimal ways while taking spots from prospects who might eventually be able to make bigger impacts. Others are even worse: actively hurting their teams whenever they get on the ice while taking spots. New York Rangers fans are currently having Tanner Glass flashbacks.

Every GM in the NHL should limit the number of “guys” available to a coach. Otherwise, they’re echoing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” by holding an intervention at a bar.

(By this analogy, Nazem Kadri is definitely wine in a can.)

Allow a hypothesis: with some injuries surfacing and the Maple Leafs generally playing well, and roaming free, signing Polak stands as something of a reward for Babcock’s patience.

It’s not great, and here’s hoping that Polak doesn’t take meaningful ice time away from better defensemen. There are some discouraging worst-case scenarios where Polak is used as a shutdown guy who really only shuts down the Leafs’ ability to counterpunch.

Ideally, Polak is used in a limited role and Toronto remains one of the most dazzling, heart-stopping, and successful teams in the NHL. That would make everyone happy (except the Maple Leafs’ opponents).

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.

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Flyers could gain in lengthy loss of Andrew MacDonald

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It’s not right to celebrate the injury of Andrew MacDonald, but it’s fair for Philadelphia Flyers fans to at least consider the silver linings.

The oft-criticized defenseman (who was booed during warm-ups during the Flyers’ season-opener) is expected to miss four-to-six weeks after blocking a shot by Edmonton Oilers forward Mark Letestu during Philly’s eventual win on Saturday.

MacDonald, 31, tried to fight through the pain and even briefly returned, gaining praise from teammates and coaches alike. Here’s the painful-looking play that caused the injury:

Flyers fans – and fans of other NHL teams, as almost all have a contract or two they’d like to give the “Men In Black” treatment to – should remember to hate the contract, not the player.

(If you’re going to boo anyone, do so to management, as that bad deal happened right around the time Ron Hextall was transitioning to GM. It’s probably not as much on Hextall, but it’s not inconceivable that he gave a thumbs up, too.)

Anyway, with the 31-year-old on the shelf and his $5M cap hit being IR-bound, the Flyers should have plenty of room to call someone up, if they’d like. That’s where things get interesting, as the Courier-Post’s Dave Isaac ranks among those pointing out intriguing defensive prospect Samuel Morin as a potential replacement.

Morin, 22, is a towering, Pronger-sized defenseman. He could slide into some of MacDonald’s roles, as both are going to be counted on for their own-zone work more than offense. Even in the AHL, Morin was known for stacking up penalty minutes more than points, although he’s off to a higher-scoring start so far this season.

While MacDonald has struggled from a possession stats perspective (as Flyers fans will likely tell you, possibly loudly), he’s far from alone in that regard. The team is middling in possession categories, and MacDonald doesn’t look all that out of place when you consider “relative” stats in 2017-18.

It will be fascinating to see if Morin can help in that regard, and really, how he fits into the modern NHL.

A defenseman his size will need to work harder to stay in position and not get burned against faster, attacking teams. With the Flyers’ host of fleet-footed, scoring blueliners, Morin could serve as a nice change-of-pace.

(Isaac also points to Mark Alt as an option, if the Flyers feel like now isn’t the time for Morin.)

With three wins in their last four games and a five-game homestand wrapping up against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday, the Flyers have a lot of good things going. As promising as the present can be at times, it’s still the future that makes this group most tantalizing. Perhaps we’ll get a glimpse at how Morin might fit into the puzzle, then?

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.

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Coyotes d-man Chychrun back skating after offseason surgery, but no timetable for return

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It’s been a difficult start to the new season for the Arizona Coyotes, as they still search for their first win after eight games.

But they received good news Saturday when sophomore defenseman Jakob Chychrun skated, which, according to Craig Morgan of NHL.com, is the first time he’s done so since he underwent knee surgery at the beginning of August and was sidelined indefinitely.

Chychrun, a left-shooting blue liner with tremendous skating ability and size at 6-foot-3 tall and 200 pounds, had been talked about as a potential top five pick well ahead of the 2016 NHL Draft, but he eventually fell down the order all the way to 16th when the Coyotes selected him.

Despite going midway through that opening round, Chychrun made the Coyotes out of training camp at the age of 18 and remained in the NHL for the entire 2016-17 season, putting up seven goals and 20 points in 68 games on a young Arizona team.

While there is reason for optimism with this development, Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet still doesn’t have a timetable for when Chychrun could return to the lineup, which could certainly use a boost.

“I’ve got to give the guy (credit),” Tocchet told the Coyotes website. “When you talk about a commitment level, Jakob Chychrun’s got it. He’s got that commitment level, that accountability. He went to Philadelphia (to rehab) by himself, and he trained there with the proper guy. He’s there every day doing whatever it takes to get back into the lineup. I love that stuff. That sort of commitment is incredible. We need that around here.”

The Coyotes now begin a five-game road trip through the East, beginning Tuesday against the New York Islanders and ending on Oct. 31 versus the Detroit Red Wings.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.