There was a surprise addition to the New Jersey Devils' practice on Sunday. Forward Brian Boyle made his first appearance with the Devils, having been cleared for full participation by team doctors after his Chronic Myeloid Leukemia diagnosis during training camp.
Boyle took part in the 60-minute-plus practice, working at full speed with his teammates for the first time since his diagnosis.
While there is no timetable for Boyle's return to game action, it was the perfect opportunity for him to rejoin his teammates. Sunday was also the team's open practice, where season ticket holders were invited to watch the team run through a regular practice day. Captain Andy Greene greeted the fans on the microphone, welcoming them to the RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House.
Dana Bornstein, a fan since the team arrived in 1982, was thrilled to be able to watch her team take part in practice.
"It just shows how much they care about us as fans and want to show what they can do," Bornstein said. "They value us and they really appreciate us being around."
Jamie Kasprzyk, who came to practice with his young daughter, said: "It's good that they open it up and let us see what it's like when they practice. They're very family and fan appropriate. They like us to be there. It's all one group and happy family here."
Kasprzyk, who has been a fan of the team since the 80's added, "They're very fan-oriented and that's what fans like us love!"
Players were equally excited to see the support they received from fans on Sunday morning.
"When you have fans out there it brings a different atmosphere to practice and you feel excited," Greene said. "It's good to have that on a day like today and support us."
Greene, after welcoming the fans, took the opportunity to welcome Boyle to his first official practice with the Devils. Players stick-tapped the ice, while fans in the crowd saluted Boyle with a round of applause and cheers.
"There were moments when I was a little embarrassed," Boyle said. "It was good to see the fans. It was a nice warm welcome for me. It felt nice. I tried to keep my head in the game and practice, but I heard them and it was much appreciated."
Boyle also added how much he appreciated the support he has received internally from his team and the NHL community.
"The guys have been unbelievable," he said. "Players, coaches, [GM] Ray [Shero]. Everyone's been phenomenal. I'm very fortunate."
Boyle found out on Saturday he was cleared to play, and while he's been skating on his own for the last few weeks, he found himself rather nervous heading into his first practice.
"It was like a wave of nerves came over me that I actually have to go out there and skate with them," he said. "It's exciting to get back into a routine and work towards a goal. Parts of it were not too bad. I was a lot better in some areas. Some of the conditioning, some of the battles, just hands and feet working together were a little fatigued."
Maurice Acuna, a 17-year-old New Jersey Devils fan, was thrilled to see Boyle on the ice for the first time.
"That's really exciting," she said. "I'm happy he's back. It was upsetting to hear what happened to him, but I'm glad that he's back and I hope he can get back to playing soon enough."
Those sentiments were echoed by Boyle's teammates, particularly Greene.
"It's good to see the way everything has worked out the way it has. His attitude has been infectious, it's been awesome to see him out there with us," Greene said.
Ben Lovejoy added, "I'm sure internally it's been just torture for he and his family. But he has not shown us that one bit. I think he's been the guy that's been the most positive."
Acuna watched practice attentively, looking over his beloved hockey team who has surprised both him and the NHL this early season.
"They've been playing really good," he said. "They're a young team that I didn't expect them to be this good. I thought it was going to be rough but they've been playing really well so I'm happy."
While it was all business for the players, there was still time for a little fun with practice ending in mini games of 3-on-3 using just a third of the ice. Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood manned the nets, as Cory Schneider remains out with a lower body injury. Coach John Hynes said he does not expect him at practice Monday and will be re-evaluated on Tuesday.
Of note, Kyle Palmieri left practice with about 20 minutes left. He went hard into the boards, and stayed down for a minute. He got up to try to test out what appeared to be an injured left leg before leaving the ice.
Hynes said after practice that Palmieri is considered day-to-day with a lower body injury and will likely not participate in Monday's practice.