As he headed into the NHL’s revamped Christmas break, Pittsburgh Penguins center Brian Boyle searched for a way to explain how much this season and his chance to return to the NHL has meant.
He came up with a good one.
“It’s not easy because my family’s not here. That’s how important it is, and that’s how great of an opportunity it is,” said Boyle, whose wife, Lauren, son, Declan, and daughter, Isabella, are living back in his hometown of Hingham, Mass.
“We wouldn’t decide to do that if it wasn’t so important. That’s probably the best way to describe it. That’s how much it means to me.”
Boyle, who turned 37 earlier this season and is the oldest player on the team – by two weeks over Jeff Carter, who turns 37 on New Year’s Day — sat out last season when no team came calling to sign him for what was a schedule that was delayed and abbreviated because of COVID-19.
That could have been it for a career that dates to his days as a freshman at Boston College in 2003-04 after being a first-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings and now includes stops with eight NHL teams.
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But then the Penguins offered him a chance to come to training camp on a professional tryout. That turned into a one-year contract for the league minimum of $750,000.
And, from his perspective, the Pittsburgh Penguins were a dream landing spot, with star power and three Stanley Cups in since Boyle entered the league.
“Every day, from camp on it’s such a privilege to be able to have a chance to play in this league, to be able to do it in an organization like this, on a team like this, with players like this,” Boyle said. “These guys are champions. They’ve won. They’ve accomplished a great amount in their careers. We’re playing well now as a group. So just to be a part of it, I want to have that chance as well.”
A chance to help the Penguins win another championship, that is.
Boyle brings 824 career games of experience, with 133 goals and 234 points, plus another 31 points in 118 postseason games.
At 6-feet-6, 245 pounds, Boyle brings a physical presence to the Penguins lineup. He also has been part of the league’s top penalty kill.
When he’s in the lineup, anyway. He went through a five-game stretch in November when he was a healthy scratch, then has dealt with an unspecified lower-body injury. He missed five games, came back for three, then was out again the past two games.
Tuesday, in a practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex that was the Penguins’ final team activity going into the holiday break, Boyle was back in a full-contact jersey.
“I feel a lot better,” Boyle said. “It’s something I never really had, so it was pretty frustrating after I felt we had three pretty good games for our line, having to come out again. That’s how it is. (Tuesday) was a really good day. I’ll use the rest to my advantage, and then continue to try to build it up. I told everyone it was 100 percent in the (locker room), but that’s tough to get to this time of year. But using the rest it will get even better.”
Boyle’s spot in the lineup could drop to a mythical fifth-line center when or if the Penguins get fully healthy. After all, a four-deep center position of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Makin, Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger is pretty formidable.
Malkin has not played this season after June knee surgery, but he has been practicing, even taking some light contact last week, and would appear to be getting close to a season debut.
But Boyle doesn’t sound as if he’s giving up on the season or his career. Not after this many years, after beating myeloid leukemia and subsequently winning the Masterton Trophy, and after sacrificing being with his family this season and after getting a chance to play for the Penguins.
“I’ve missed a little bit of time with some injuries, which is really, really disappointing, but … every day there’s not really a time where I’ve gotten too comfortable and thought this is a normal day for me,” Boyle said. “It’s a privilege. It really is. It’s a blessing, and I’m just thrilled.”