January 26, 2009
In the 2009 NHL All-Star Game, 17 players made their first appearances in the League's midseason classic. Most of them were relative newbies like Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews and Carey Price; three players who have a combined 468 NHL regular season games to their credit.
Dan Boyle has played in 567 games over 10 seasons. Yet it was only after last night that the tally for his career all-star appearances officially flipped from zero to one.
"Playing with Marty [St. Louis] and Vinny [Lecavalier] in Tampa, they usually got to go," said Boyle, who played six seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, scoring over 50 points three times.
Boyle has been considered one of the NHL's premiere defensemen for so long, it's sometimes easy to forget his humble beginnings as an undrafted player out of Miami University, who signed as a free agent with the Florida Panthers in 1998. He was a Hobey Baker finalist who didn't get drafted; and in a 2007 interview with ESPN's David Amber, Boyle bitterly recalled his rookie frustration:
"The one question was obviously my size. [I was] a defenseman at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds at the time; but still, you would think that one guy would say, ‘Hey, maybe we'll pick this guy and take a chance.' But they wouldn't even do that, which I think is ridiculous."
He said he was a player with a career-long chip on his shoulder, which has fueled Boyle's transformation from a spare part with the Panthers -- who traded him to Tampa for a fifth-round pick in 2002 -- to an elite defenseman, a Stanley Cup champion and, based on his outstanding season with the Sharks thus far, an all-star and Norris Trophy contender.
It's been a journey that's had moments both frustrating and surreal; and it doesn't get more surreal for Boyle than being an all-star defensive partner with the player he was brought in to replace for San Jose this season.
Boyle wasn't sure if he had met Brian Campbell previously, but said the two don't have a relationship off the ice. They are intrinsically connected, however, in the minds of many Sharks fans.
After posting 19 points in 20 games for San Jose following his acquisition from the Buffalo Sabres last season, Campbell signed a massive eight-year, $56.8 million free-agent contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Meanwhile, Boyle had come to an impasse with the Lightning's new ownership after signing a six-year, $40 million contract extension in Feb. 2008 that also had a no-trade clause. The Bolts brain-trust wanted to move him; Boyle wanted to stay. After threatening to place him on waivers, and generally dragging out the ordeal to its breaking point, Boyle agreed to a trade that sent him to San Jose. The move, along with the signing of Rob Blake, was seen as a direct response to Campbell's departure.
Campbell was voted into the all-star game by the fans, while Boyle was selected as a reserve. When it came to the defensive pairings for the game, Boyle didn't expect to see action with Campbell. "I thought I was playing with [Scott Niedermayer], because that was what's on the board," he said.
Boyle began the game playing a little with Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, then saw a shift with Sheldon Souray of the Edmonton Oilers. But during the first period, the former and current Sharks defensemen were paired up.
"I think they just wanted to pair a righty with a lefty," said Boyle.
Was he saying there was actually coaching in the NHL All-Star Game?
"It was pretty much the only coaching they did."
How did the two stack up as a pairing? Let's just say they embraced the all-star mindset.
"You take a lot of chances, and you do a lot of things that you'd never normally do in a game," said Boyle. "I was playing with Campbell, so we were caught deep, both of us, on many occasions. Again, if you're playing in the regular season, you'd play a lot smarter than that."
Boyle ended the night with a goal, an assist and seven shots. His second-period tally was vintage hockey from both he and Campbell: The Blackhawks D-man springing Shane Doan with a neutral zone pass, and Boyle skating into the circle to rip a shot past Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers at 5:14.
When asked about the irony of playing with Campbell in the all-star game, Boyle grinned with acknowledgement. "It just kinda happened that way," he said. "Maybe it'll make a chat room or something like that."
For Boyle, it didn't matter whom he played with, but that he was playing in a game that he had previously only watched on television. The experience met his expectations. "I knew the fans were going to be crazy coming in -- it's Montreal. They did a great job," he said. "And the game certainly picked up at the end there. Both teams certainly wanted to win."
That said, count Boyle among those NHL players who believe there should be some added incentive for an all-star game victory. His teammate Joe Thornton floated the idea that winning team's players would be exempt from paying into the League's escrow account. But Boyle wants to see Canada's religion take a page from America's pastime.
"Down the road, they should look into making it just like the baseball game, where you get home-field advantage," he said. "[But] you obviously don't want to see guys get hurt. You have to worry about that, too. But it's something to think about. I'm not saying 'let's do that,' but just make it worthwhile."
It was a worthwhile weekend for Boyle, as he leaves with a two-point game ... even if he didn't end his all-star debut in Gordie Howe style.
"Yeah ... I just didn't fight. That was the only thing that was missing for the hat trick," he said in the Western Conference locker room. "Maybe it's not too late, and I can find a guy [in here]."
Was he eyeing anyone on the Eastern Conference side during the game.
"Marty St. Louis," said Boyle. "I think I can take him."