NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — 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,” said Boyle, who signed a two-year, $5.1 million contract with the Devils in July. “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.”
A former first-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings, Boyle has played 10 seasons in the NHL, recording 93 goals and 76 assists. He split last season between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, registering 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists).
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)