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College route to NHL becoming more popular for players including Brian Boyle

by Samantha Ouimette / Tampa Bay Lightning

Try telling Brian Boyle that as an NHL athlete he is an exception for having gone to college, and he’ll be quick to point out that is simply not the case.

“No, no. Sustr, Garrison, Carle, Killorn, Brown, Me, Bishop. In New York we had a lot too. I mean it’s not the majority, it’s not like everyone goes from college to pro like in the NFL. We just have such a wide range of guys to pick from that make this league.”

Boyle has a point. At the turn of the century, only 20 percent of NHL players attended college; that number has grown considerably in the years since with a record 305 former college players skating in the NHL during the 2013-14 season, comprising 31 percent of the league. Although college hockey is the fastest growing development path to the NHL, the vast majority of players still choose to forgo continuing their education and develop within the Major Junior ranks.

But for the Massachusetts native, there was never a doubt that Boston College would be the place where he’d pave the way to a successful career in professional hockey.

Having always dreamt of being a BC Eagle, Boyle enrolled at the school with the realization that he needed more time to mature both personally and professionally. As a communications major, he admittedly was not particularly interested in school; however, Boyle understood the importance of attending classes and notes that he took a lot away from the education he received.

The determined young athlete never gave serious consideration to the idea that he might have to leave behind his dream of becoming an NHL player and instead use his degree. For him, his college experience was a way to facilitate the goal he was set on achieving.

“I was pretty determined that I had to figure out a way to get better or to get my foot in the door somewhere or be successful somehow because I’m playing hockey. That’s what I’m going to do,” Boyle said. “I thought it was really important to know that sometimes you have to do some of the things you don’t want to do, and learn that it’s not always that you get to go out and shoot pucks and skate around; you have responsibilities elsewhere. But the whole time the driving force behind it all was so that I could play the game.”

Learning how to become responsible both on and off the ice was one of the main things Boyle took away from his time at school. Though he was only 30 miles from home while at Boston College, the forward experienced for the first time what it meant to be out from under his parents roof; it meant having the ability to make his own decisions both good and bad, dealing with the consequences of those decisions, and becoming an adult in the process.

The maturation Boyle was experiencing on a mental level had a noticeable positive impact on his play. The Eagles qualified for the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament each of the four years Boyle was a member of the team, reaching the Frozen Four in three different seasons and the Division I Title Game in his last two. In addition to enjoying success as a member of the team, Boyle enjoyed success on a personal level as well: the forward was a two-time All-American during his college career.

Although the forward notes that he needed those extra four years to grow, he doesn’t believe that all athletes have that same need. If a player is NHL-ready when he finishes high school, Boyle says he should be able to earn a living doing what he loves.

“I think if they’re good enough and they’re making an impact on the league and they’re effective, you have to let them do that,” Boyle said. “I went to college for four years; I could’ve gone for three years. But I had to, and I was in the minors after that anyways for a little while. If I could’ve played in the NHL, if you told me after my freshman year that I was guaranteed to play in the NHL, I would’ve left school to play in the NHL. That was my goal, that was something that I really wanted to do.”

Prior to attending college, Boyle was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. After graduating in 2007, the forward made his professional debut with the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ AHL affiliate. Boyle thrived under Monarchs’ head coach Mark Morris and assistant coach Scott Pellerin, putting up 31 goals and 31 assists in his first full season with the team.

It wouldn’t be long before Boyle was called up to join the Kings, and his AHL success quickly translated to NHL success. On the night of his debut in 2008, the forward scored his first NHL goal against Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils; he would go on to score three goals is his first four games.

Though his time in Los Angeles would come to an end in 2009, Boyle would go on to find a better fit with the New York Rangers. It was there that he became a real NHL athlete, having the best season of his career in 2010-11 with 21 goals and 14 points and reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season. It was also there that he would meet and play with current teammates Ryan Callahan and Anton Stralman, who over the years have both been able to watch how big of an impact he has whenever he hits the ice.

“Brian is one of those guys that as a fan, you probably don’t see all the hard work and all the good stuff he does on the ice,” Stralman said. “He puts his body on the line for us every game, blocking shots, playing physical, and doing a great job defensively. For me as a defenseman, knowing that he’s down low working in the corners feels very secure. He plays a big part for us, especially on the penalty kill; he uses his body well and he seems like he’s always in the right position.”

Now a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boyle has been utilizing his unique combination of size and finesse to help lift his team to the top of the NHL. Having played for the top prize at both the college and professional level, the forward has a great deal of experience in knowing how to handle success and how to manage expectations.

With Tampa Bay being one of the most highly-touted teams this season, Boyle notes that he’s able to keep a level head by understanding that there is still a long way to go. A playoff-like mentality is something that he says needs to be maintained every day, and that the eagerness and high level of play that this team has shown thus far is crucial to continued success.

That attitude is perhaps the most notable effect of Boyle’s extended period of growth. He is mature enough to know that tough times don’t last, and that ups-and-downs are a part of both the game and of life. Though he may struggle at some points along the way, in the end Boyle never takes for granted that he is living his dream each and every day.

“There are days where you get discouraged, and there are days even now where you wake up and you’re not really happy with how you’re playing, and can just kind of put a damper on things. You’re going to get discouraged sometimes, and you’re going to get down. You’ve got to have some perspective and talk yourself out of that, because we all live pretty good lives.”

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