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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Brian Boyle skated off the ice, visibly and blissfully drained after his first training camp practice in years.
The pain — the good kind, the kind that comes when trying to hang with the best hockey players in the world — offered the veteran forward a reminder of all that he missed last winter when he sat by the phone waiting for a call that never came.
Boyle believed his body was sharp heading into the abbreviated 2020-21 season. His mind too. Thirty-one NHL teams did not seem to agree. And so for the first time since breaking in with the Los Angeles Kings in 2008, Boyle found himself watching the league move on without him.
“It was awkward,” Boyle said. “It was different.”
And how, he hopes, it's over after Boyle received a professional tryout contract from the Penguins on the eve of camp. All it does, really, is afford him an opportunity to show there's still plenty of life in his 36-year-old legs.
Hey, he'll take it.
“It’s a chance for me to get back in the league with a good team, a really good team,” Boyle said after Thursday's session. "The roster speaks for itself. You get to play with some superstars in this league. Some guys that have changed the way the game is played in this league.”
Even if those guys — star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — are unavailable at the moment while recovering from wrist (Crosby) and knee (Malkin) surgeries. Their absence, however, helped open the door for Boyle. The Penguins could use an intimidating presence to make them more difficult to play against, and the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Boyle is well aware that is the one component he will always bring to the ice no matter where he suits up.
“I need to be able to use (my body), whether it’s just separating a guy from a puck or throwing a big hit if the chance happens,” he said. "There’s a lot of different ways you can be physical. I’m going to need every single one of them.”
Boyle is more than just a big body. He's scored 130 goals in 805 games for seven teams, most notably helping the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals. He had six goals and nine assists in 39 games with Florida during the 2019-20 season and felt he performed well enough during the Panthers' brief four-game stint in the playoff bubble to earn a shot at returning somewhere else in 2020-21.
It didn't happen. The unexpected time off, however, did have its perks. He watched his son Declan become enamored with hockey the way he did as a child and became a regular at the dance studio where his daughter Isabella practices.
“It was a cool, really really fun year for me,” Boyle said.
Except for the part where he'd plop down in a chair at night and watch the NHL move on without him. He worked out regularly with trainers in Massachusetts to stay game-ready and attempted to remain upbeat, not always easy during a sometimes mundane process that offered no guarantee of a reward.
He did eventually receive a call, not from the NHL but the U.S. national hockey team. He served as team captain last spring for a group that earned bronze at the 2021 world championships, chipping in two goals and an assist while providing on a roster dominated by players a decade (or more) younger.
The larger international ice slowed the game down a bit for Boyle, allowing him to see plays before they developed. Things will go back to being a bit more cramped in the NHL. Boyle has a way of creating space, a facet of his game that appeals to Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan, who was an assistant with the Rangers during Boyle's tenure in the early 2010s.
“He’s a guy that brings a certain skill set in areas where we can improve and get better,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a very good penalty killer. He’s a face-off guy. He brings a lot of sides to our team. He’s hard to play against. He’s just overall, he’s a smart player and he’s a good pro.”
Four years removed from being diagnosed with a form of leukemia, Boyle is healthy, too. He's not concerned about possible exposure to COVID-19. He's not concerned about much of anything other than trying to get back in the game he's not quite ready to give up.
“There are things I can still do,” Boyle said. "If I get an opportunity, I’m going to try and do it. There’s not going to be any regrets at the end of it, no matter what.”
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Will Graves, The Associated Press