Hockey fans have watched Ottawa native Dan Boyle have an incredible 18-year career. However, unlike the majority of other great NHL defencemen, Boyle was not supposed to be great. In fact, he wasn’t even expected to make it at all. As an undersized teen, Boyle was told repeatedly that he was too small to ever reach the National Hockey League. This narrative was emphasized further when Boyle went undrafted to the NHL. While it would have been easy for him to give up on his dream, he used this adversity as fuel to drive him from that day forward. Over the course of the next few years, Dan Boyle went from being an NHL afterthought to one of the top defencemen in the National Hockey League. We caught up with the Ottawa native to hear about his incredible journey from growing up in Lowertown and knowing that few believed in him, to becoming a Stanley Cup and Olympic champion.
Photography by Mathieu Brunet
Tell us about your decision to play in the NCAA Versus going the more traditional Junior Route?
I was an undersized player when I was growing up. When I was 16, I’m guessing I was about 140 pounds, maybe 5’9, and I wasn’t exactly seen as a hot commodity or prospect at the time (laughs). I don’t want to say I had given up the idea of playing in the NHL, but let’s just say I didn’t think it was a realistic possibility for me at that time. So I figured that I might as well take the college route, get a degree out of it and then see what happens after that. I got recruited to the University of Miami, fell in love with the campus-they had a great team at the time-so I pulled the trigger and really enjoyed my 4 years there.
What did it feel like for you to not be drafted by an NHL team in your draft year?
I didn’t really think that getting to the NHL was attainable because I’d been told back when I was 14,15,16 that if I wasn’t going to grow or get bigger then I was going to have no chance. I wasn’t a late bloomer, but I still became one of the top defencemen in the NCAA for a couple years and I had just been runner up for the Hobey Baker (the Award that goes each year to the top College Hockey Player). So to not be drafted, it definitely was frustrating, demoralizing and I was angry… but that was the fuel that motivated me for the rest of my career. I had that underdog mentality for my whole career and it all started with not being drafted.
Who was the first person you called when you were signed by the Florida Panthers and why was it important that you called them on such an important day for you?
To be honest, I don’t remember who I called – but if I were to guess, it would have to have been my parents. I spoke to my parents every day for all of the 18 years that I played. Signing with the Panthers was a big moment for me, but I was still a little skeptical as many guys sign with NHL teams but never make it, but at least it was a foot in the door.
What was your first NHL training camp like for you?
I was pretty quiet my first training camp, since I wasn’t a high draft pick. I was a little overwhelmed by it all. Pavel Bure was on the team at the time and he was a big star. There were players that I looked up to that I was skating with…I felt out of my league. To me, I was a black sheep there, I thought I was just some kid that they signed that no one had any expectations for. Looking back, that was the only time that I can say that I felt I didn’t really belong or deserve to be there.
To go from feeling like a black sheep to being a critical part of a Stanley Cup winning team, that was quite an evolution over 5-6 years, wasn’t it?
I can talk for 5 hours alone about the experience and the journey of me going from feeling like a complete outcast to someone that was head to head with Zdeno Chara for playing the most minutes a night in the NHL. It was an amazing change for me. Winning the Stanley Cup wasn’t on my radar, playing in the league wasn’t on my radar, so to go from where I started, how I was feeling my first NHL camp… to winning the Stanley Cup is just surreal for me.
What was it like for you to win the Stanley Cup in 2004?
The bond you create with the guys, after going through 9 months of pain and torture and hard work and seeing how it all just comes together, to be able to celebrate with them and then with my family was just amazing. The night that we won the Stanley Cup was huge, but the night that I got to take the Cup home to my house in Ottawa, to bring it home here to my family and friends and to see the look on their faces… more than anything, that moment, that might be the best memory of the whole Cup winning experience for me.
Can you describe what it was like for you to win the Gold Medal for Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics, playing in one of the most historic hockey games in history (the Gold Medal win over the United States)?
I had gotten to play in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, which was obviously very stressful as you wouldn’t think it would get more exciting than that, but I would have to say that the Gold Medal Game was probably the most stressed I’ve ever been going in. That being said, I think I had a very good game. We were scored on late in the 3rd period and I think we all felt the weight of 35 million Canadians on our shoulders, but we had a great locker room. I remember going into the locker room before overtime and obviously we had a lot of Hall of Famers and a lot of great players in that room. As stressful as it was, everyone was calm, and I think that’s why we ended up winning the game.
Who would you say is the hardest player you’ve played against over the years?
I would have to say Peter Forsberg, when he was at the top of his game. Eric Lindros was pretty hard to play against, and over the last 10 years, I’d say Sidney Crosby has been the best player and hardest player to play against for sure.
Looking back on your career, is there one accomplishment that you are most proud of?
I would say overcoming adversity. A lot of guys get drafted, but there are a few of us-and I’m not the only one obviously-that are kinda kicked to the curb early, told we’re never going to make it, but I think I went on to have a great career. 18 years… and on the whole, overcom-ing what everyone thought I would be, overcoming what the scouts said I couldn’t do, the people and coaches that doubted me who said I had to grow, gain weight, change the way I play, and so on. Through all of that, I am most proud that I stuck to my guns, I played the game that I wanted to play and it ended up being a pretty successful career. I hope that I opened some eyes to how the position can be played and I’m happy that more and more guys today are playing the game that way. I am proud of that.
Let’s talk a little about your life away from the rink. How has becoming a father changed you as a person?
I’m sure every dad says the same thing and thinks their kids are the best (laughs), but I honestly and truly believe that I am the happiest father ever, I love my kids so much. Anyone who sees me and knows me says the same thing to me, that they’ve never seen someone love their kids as much as I do. Has it changed me? It has been just the greatest gifts I’ve ever had. I love being at home. One of the biggest reasons I retired was it was killing me to be away from them and now I get to be with them all the time. It is absolutely the best thing in the entire world.
When you do come home to Ottawa, you still train with Tony Greco. How long have you known Tony for and what makes him such a popular choice for hockey players to train with?
(Laughs) Tony is a great guy and it’s a funny story. I met Tony through a friend, Richard Valente, and he told me that he had this guy who wanted to work me out, that he was a black belt martial artist… and I’m say-ing ‘Well how does that have anything to do with hockey?’ I thought It would be ridiculous (laughs)… but one time I decided to just go and try it out and it was the most amazing summer of working out I’ve ever had. I think at the time there might have just been 2 or 3 of us (NHL Players) working out, he only had the one spot, he was kinda an unknown back in those days. I’ve complimented Tony every which way possible, he’s great. Sometimes going to work out, you just get tired and don’t want to go. But with him, after 20 years, it’s always a different workout, he keeps it interesting, he keeps it different, he has a lot of creativity in the exercises and I think that is why you’re seeing what you’re seeing today and why he’s so successful. My workouts have changed a bit now that I’m retired, but when I’m in Ottawa I always go to the Lean + Fit and I absolutely love doing it.
Do you have any favourite restaurants or places you like to visit when you are in Ottawa?
Richard Valente is one of my best friends but that’s not why I love Fratelli’s, I think it’s the place to be. As far as places to go, when I come back I usually stay out at my parents to Orleans, but I do take my kids to the museums and I like to show the kids where I grew up, which is in Lowertown. I always enjoy coming back here.
What is one piece of advice would you give to young athletes who aspire to follow in your footsteps, who may be facing similar adversity that you faced?
I would go back to believing in yourself, trusting yourself. Not everyone is going to be a first rounder, not everyone is going to be highly touted or have people in their corner. You have to start by believing in yourself. If you do start getting in a position where it’s getting harder and it looks like you’re not going to make it, like you could be be headed to the minors or you could end up being cut, my advice is to go out your way. I think a lot of players try to just do what they think they need to do-which can be tried and that’s fine. But for me, there was a point where I said, “if I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out playing Dan Boyle hockey; believing in myself’. And you know what? It worked out for me. So for the kids that are going through a tough time, I would say, believe in yourself. and if it’s not going to work out, put your best foot forward so that you don’t have any regrets.