Nick Boynton remembers exactly how diabetes became part of his life back in 1999, when he was a 20-year-old working on his family's farm in Canada a few weeks before his first NHL training camp. “One day I just couldn't get out of bed because I was too tired, and my parents were starting to get upset because I wasn't making it to work,” the Coyotes defenseman said. “It really just came out of the blue and I got sicker and sicker.”
Eight-plus years later, Boynton has mastered managing his diabetic condition and has played in more than 400 NHL games. “My condition hasn't changed the way I've played and it's never stopped me from doing anything,” Boynton said. “It's just one of those things that if you want to be here, you deal with.”
Boynton said he dropped between 25 to 30 pounds in the summer of 1999, and doctors twice misdiagnosed his condition. Eventually, it was determined he had type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes. “In my case, your pancreas just stops and your body just stops making insulin and you have to artificially mimic your pancreas,” Boynton said.
Boynton wears an insulin pump and tests his blood sugar about 10 times daily. He said he keeps the pump on him 24 hours a day, except when he's on the ice for games and practices. “If my blood sugar runs too high, it feels like a really bad headache or hangover,” Boynton said. “I just feel awful, and I'm tired and sick. If it's too low, it's the same sort of thing; only I'm not very 'with it.' I could be sitting there talking to somebody or they could be talking to me and I'll just be in another place. So I've got to keep it balanced.”
Boynton's diet is key. “It basically comes down to counting carbohydrates,” he said. “If I'm going to have a bowl of cereal for breakfast, I need to give myself eight units of insulin. If I'm going to have toast with that, I have to give myself a little bit more. It's the same thing with lunch. On game days, I pretty much eat the same things because if I'm low, then bad things are going to happen out on the ice.” Boynton said he sometimes feels his blood sugar dropping during games. When that happens, he heads for the Gatorade cooler for a drink and he's good to go.
Before joining the Coyotes, Boynton involved himself in efforts to raise money for diabetes research and regularly visited the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston to talk to children and families affected by the disease. “I get a lot of letters from parents, mostly thanking me for continuing to play hockey,” Boynton said. “I think that gives them hope more than anything. I think when your son or daughter is diagnosed when they're 2 or 3 years old, it can be a real scary thing. I've played for a few years now and have had no problems. If I can show kids and families that you can still do what you want as long as you take care of yourself properly, I think I owe that to people.”
Other professional athletes who performed at a high level despite having diabetes include baseball legend Jackie Robinson, NBA star Walt Frazier, former heavyweight champion James "Buster" Douglas, Olympic swimmer Gary Hall, Jr. and tennis great Arthur Ashe. Boynton broke into the NHL in 1999-2000 with the Boston Bruins and was an All-Star by 2003-04. He notched a career-high 30 points that season and was plus-17. The Coyotes acquired him for Paul Mara before the 2006-07 season. At age 29, he’s one of the older players on Phoenix’s roster.
This season, Head Coach Wayne Gretzky paired Boynton with young blueliners like Keith Yandle
or Matt Jones, hoping they would learn a thing or two from the two-time first-round draft pick.
“The hardest thing about coming into this league is being consistent every night,” Boynton said. “The guys who have been around have to stay on the young guys, but I saw no signs that our young guys hit the wall this year. They’re all hard workers and they played hard every night.”
Boynton plays hard, too, and is almost always the first one to jump into a scrum to protect a teammate. Captain Shane Doan
said Boynton is a key cog to this team. “Nick always has your back,” Doan said. “He’s one of those guys that doesn’t get his name onto the scoresheet very often and he’s rarely on the TV highlights, but he does the little things a team needs to have done to be successful. He’s a very under-rated player and we need him to keep playing well if we’re going to get to the playoffs.”
In 18 NHL career playoff games, Boynton has one goal and five assists. His playoff experience is second only to Ed Jovanovski amongst the Coyotes’ defensive corps. Boynton said he was OK with the franchise’s shift to rebuilding with youth after not reaching the playoffs the past few seasons. “Honestly, things really couldn’t have been any worse than they were in the 2006-07 season so I think the change was inevitable,” Boynton said. “That was a long year for everyone, but you’ve got to stay positive if you want to get better.”
The Coyotes placed Boynton on waivers last summer, but he was not claimed by another team and was ready to go at training camp. He has used being placed on waivers as motivation to raise his game. “When something like that happens you can either give up or work harder,” Boynton said. “So, I took on an I’ll-show-you approach because I don’t plan on finishing my career after my current contract is done. You try to use it as motivation, but hopefully that never happens to me again.”
While being placed on waivers serves as motivation, Boynton finds inspiration from his uncle David, who was paralyzed from the neck down about a decade ago in a car accident on his way home from a hockey tournament. “I play a game for a living and I go through ups and downs, but he was in intensive care for about 16 months and at one point they didn’t think he was going to live,” Boynton said. “But he’s made it and he’s probably the most positive person I’ve ever known in my life. A lot of people would choose to do things differently in his situation, but he wakes up with a smile on his face every day. So when things go wrong for me, like getting put on waivers, I don’t feel too bad for myself for too long because there are a lot worse things that can happen.”