Brock Boeser overcomes personal, family hardships to star for Canucks

Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire

PRIOR LAKE, Minn. -- The summer of Brock Boeser took place at a 6,000-square-foot Minnesota lake house with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the water (and an inflatable trampoline volleyball court docked just outside). The Vancouver Canucks winger rented the place with three high school buddies, and before you begin wondering if this is some "Entourage"-esque setup, the 21-year-old clears things up.

"Come on, they're my friends!" he said. "They're not using me; everyone pays rent."

In the mornings, Boeser drove 20 minutes to his parents' house to have breakfast and play with Coolie, the Australian Cattle Dog mix the Boesers fell in love with -- and adopted -- at January's NHL All-Star weekend. He'd then work out and spend afternoons lake surfing.

Things might be good in Minnesota, but they're just as pleasant in Vancouver, where Boeser has fallen in love with the city because "the fans are awesome, it's beautiful, everyone is really active ... and the sushi, the sushi is so good. They have it for us after games, and I only need a few pieces because I'm satisfied and move on."

Boeser led the Canucks in scoring (29 goals and 55 points in just 62 contests), wooing just about everyone who saw him. Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz compared Boeser's release to Alex Ovechkin's. Says Vancouver defenseman Erik Gudbranson: "His release is ridiculous, just ridiculous. The puck is on and off his stick in a split-second."

Henrik Sedin called the rookie "the most natural goal scorer I've ever played with."

Yes, that takes into account his twin, Daniel.

In January, Boeser raked in an impressive All-Star haul. As the first rookie to win MVP, he picked up $675,000 -- more than two-thirds of his salary -- in bonuses and prize money, plus a new car. That has led Boeser to enjoy the unexpected spoils of fame. He was taken aback when he found out somebody was selling a T-shirt featuring a collage of ... his face.

"Just a bunch of pictures of me," he said. "All over." (Indeed, they retail for $24.99 and also come in tank-top form.)

Because of his platinum blond locks, Boeser is constantly being tagged on social media alongside photos of Prince Charming from "Shrek." Then there are the even crazier perks, like filming a skit for the Canadian Juno music awards with singer Michael Buble.

"We were at an event and somebody introduced him to us, and right away, he was telling us how he owns part of the Vancouver Giants and loves hockey and was acting like a superfan of us," Boeser says. "And I'm like, 'Holy f---, excuse my language, this is crazy.' And then he goes, 'I have this great idea [for the skit].' We literally filmed it the next week.'"

Boeser and Buble still text semi-regularly.

So, yes, entering his second NHL season, it's good to be Brock Boeser right now. But you might excuse the 21-year-old if he just takes a few minutes to enjoy this; he and his family have overcome a lot just to get here.

Boeser calls it a dumb play, but really, it was dumb luck. On March 5, the Canucks -- well outside of playoff position -- hosted the New York Islanders. Late in the third period, Boeser was skating backward along the bench-side walls as he leaned in on New York's Cal Clutterbuck.

"I wasn't going for a big hit," Boeser says. "I just wanted to get in his way. But he saw me coming and hit me back."

The next thing Boeser remembers is flying in the air and then lying on the ice. The Canucks' bench door happened to be open; his backside clunked against the open gate. At first he saw stars. Boeser didn't know if he had shattered his pelvis. Maybe it was his hip. He couldn't feel his left leg.

"I kind of had a panic attack in my stomach," he says. "So I flipped myself over."

Once he was helped to the training table, he remembers "10 guys around me, all trying to cut my stuff off, but I was in so much pain, the most pain in my entire life."

When team doctors clarified that it was a back injury, Boeser was shuttled into an ambulance.

"My mom was freaking out," he says. "Texting me a thousand times. I told her to relax, then handed the phone to the doctor."

Boeser was offered drugs to alleviate the pain, and at first he said no. Then the ambulance hit a bump -- maybe a small pothole -- and the impact reverberated through Boeser's entire body, to the point where he blurted: "I'll take them."

By the time he got to the hospital, he thought he felt good. Maybe, he thought, I can play the rest of the season. Then he tried to move his body; he then knew that he was done for the year. Teammates Michael Del Zotto, Troy Stecher and Chris Tanev visited after the game and stayed by Boeser's side as the diagnosis was revealed: a soft tissue injury and a small nonstructural, nondisplaced fracture of the transverse process in his lower back. He was released early in the morning.

"I couldn't walk for four days," Boeser says. "I just laid in my apartment. I'd get up to go to the bathroom -- it would take me about five minutes just to get up -- then go right back to bed."

Boeser was eventually cleared to travel, and the Canucks' team doctor accompanied him back to Minnesota -- in part because he had a wrist issue, as well. Boeser would continue therapy over the summer with John Bottoms, the Minnesota Wild's therapist, and fly back to Vancouver a few times to check in with the team.

"Anytime you see a teammate like that go down, especially one of the best players on your team, it's definitely scary," Bo Horvat told ESPN in September. "Back injuries are not to be taken lightly. Once we knew he was OK, and that he was going to be fine, we all took a deep breath."

The welt in his back was the size of a softball, and it took weeks to reduce. But Boeser was cleared to play hockey again a week before Da Beauty League -- weekly rec games for local college and NHL players -- began. Since there's no checking in summer hockey, he wasn't really worried.

"If you had slapped my back, it still would have been sore," Boeser says. "I was just so pumped to be out there. I was probably the fastest one on the ice, just so excited to play."

Boeser tallied 15 goals and 33 points through eight games and added a knocked-from-midair goal and assist in the final to help his team win the John Scott Championship and get the tournament's empty keg trophy. Boeser was named MVP.

The injury won't change the way Boeser plays, but it has him thinking about hockey mortality.

"My goal is to play in the NHL as long as I can," he says. "Obviously I think a lot more about injury now. Before this happened, I'd never think of that. I mean, the odds of you having a career-ending injury are scarce, but I think about it a lot more now. One bad thing could happen, and I could be done."

Boeser wants to buy a house next summer so his parents can move in and downsize. He has already given his parents his Jeep.

As for the car he won at the NHL All-Star Game? Within minutes of learning he won it, Boeser pledged to give it to his sister, Jessica. ("It's electric," he says. "So that'll save my parents a lot of money on gas.") A few days before he reported back to Vancouver for training camp, Boeser told his mother, Laurie, to sort out her insurance because he wanted her to be able to quit her job in a year.

"I want to help my family out and ..." Boeser said, pausing. "You have to think about these things. You have to remember how lucky you are just to be alive and have this opportunity."

As Brock was growing up, Laurie Boeser was convinced her son, the youngest of three children, would become a minister. Brock Boeser was introverted, always did his homework on time and worked hard in sports. He was the type of kid who, according to Laurie, first had to take in his environment, then warm up to whatever the circumstances were.

He didn't have much time to warm up to devastating news in seventh grade, when Laurie revealed to her children that their father, Duke Boeser, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

"I had no idea," Boeser says, "until my mom started telling me the symptoms."

Boeser thought about how his dad sometimes skidded his feet when he walked and that his energy levels weren't as high.

"It was tough for him," he says. "He was such a young age. Just 49."

Said Laurie: "Brock was a sensitive kid. I think he was trying to process it all, but you could tell he was sad. Super-sad. He knew things would be different. And our family was going through a lot."

Duke's father, whom he was very close with, had fallen ill. Duke learned of the Parkinson's diagnosis on a Wednesday. His father died that Friday from pancreatic cancer.

"I learned strength from my dad. How much he fights. And how he's always smiling, cracking jokes with people, even with everything he has to go through." Brock Boeser

Things weren't easy for Duke at the time. His painting business had struggled during the economic recession, so he started driving for UPS, which offered benefits, for 2 1/2 hours on Saturday mornings. Now the family was driving to the best Parkinson's specialist in Minneapolis to learn how to manage their new reality.

"I learned strength from my dad," Brock says. "How much he fights. And how he's always smiling, cracking jokes with people, even with everything he has to go through."

In addition to her job in customer service, Laurie got a gig preparing taxes. She also began working shifts at Outback Steakhouse, as hockey -- especially as Brock entered high school -- didn't come cheap. The Boesers were spending somewhere between $500 and $600 a month on the sport.

"Brock was always understanding," Laurie says. "He was never asking for $800 skates."

But anytime Brock inadvertently broke a stick during a game, Laurie would pick up an extra shift at Outback.

Two years after the Parkinson's diagnosis, thing got even harder. Duke was driving just a half-mile from the family's house when a car ran a red light and T-boned him. He was rushed to the nearby hospital; his pelvis was broken in three places, and he also suffered a lacerated spleen and traumatic brain injury.

"Duke was always a very high-energy dad, super-friendly, outgoing, a hard-working and fun guy to be around," Laurie says. "And then all of the sudden he just didn't have the same endurance. Cognitively, things were just different. Through all of this, financially, things changed drastically for us."

The accident exacerbated Duke's Parkinson's symptoms and also meant that rehab would take even longer.

"If we didn't have my mom," Brock said, "I don't know how it would be. She literally keeps everything together."

In August 2014, Laurie took another phone call -- this time it was Brock delivering sobering news. Brock was captaining the United States U17 team at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup tournament in Slovakia when he found out that four friends were in a car crash.

The boys, rising seniors at Burnsville High, were spending one of their last days of summer on a day trip, cliff diving and swimming at nearby Cannon River. On the drive back, at 9:40 p.m., their Jeep Cherokee lost control and rolled over. Ty Alyea and Cole Borchardt were in the back seat without seat belts and were ejected from the car. Alyea, one of Boeser's best friends, died.

Borchardt, who was an old linemate of Boeser's, had emergency brain surgery and several other operations -- he had shattered both shoulders, tore his ACL, injured his spleen and broke his wrist -- and spent several months under heavy sedation. A little over a year later, Borchardt was able to take his first steps. Police said no alcohol was involved in the crash.

"As if this kid hadn't been through enough," Laurie says. "Just another tragic event."

Both Aylea and Duke wore No. 6 in high school, the jersey number Brock wears with the Canucks.

After dominating in the USHL with 68 points in 57 games, Brock Boeser was drafted at No. 23 by the Canucks in 2015. He flexed his scoring prowess as a freshman at the University of North Dakota with 27 goals, surpassing Zach Parise's freshman record. Boeser's 60 points were more than Jonathan Toews' and T.J. Oshie's freshman totals.

Boeser's sophomore season ended when North Dakota lost in double-overtime to Boston University in the NCAA tournament. He signed his entry-level contract hours after and immediately joined the Canucks.

"I was throwing up after the game because I was so exhausted and stressed," Boeser says. "I couldn't sleep, woke up with the worst headache, had a super-early flight, went to the hotel for five minutes, then went to the rink to get ready for the game."

Vancouver's game that night was in St. Paul against the Wild, and as Boeser entered the locker room beforehand, he got another surprise: Canucks coach Willie DesJardins had invited Laurie and Duke to read the starting lineups.

"I just can't tell you how special that was," Laurie says. "Besides my wedding day and the birth of my children, it was the best day of our life. I just kept saying, 'Can you believe this? Can you believe any of this?'"

Even more unbelievable: Boeser would score the game winner, right in front of the suite his parents were sitting in. But there was more bad news coming.

When Boeser returned to Minnesota, he found out his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. Never a smoker, the diagnosis came out of nowhere. Duke reported to doctors that something wasn't right; they decided to do a CT scan.

At this point, Duke was on disability. He had a fall a few years earlier that led to six surgeries and a shoulder replacement. Now he was set to go through chemo and radiation.

"His whole summer was wrecked," Brock says. "They had surgery, and it was small enough they could remove it. He was cancer-free at the end of the summer, thank the Lord, but [his] Parkinson's made it so much harder for him."

Brock would visit his dad, who often spent afternoons watching animals in the backyard, then Brock would train hard, working specifically on his skating. By September, the Canucks noticed he was a more defensively responsible skater. He made the roster but was scratched the first two games.

"It didn't faze or rattle me at all," Brock says. "I knew once I had my chance, I'd make the most of it."

Boeser scored a pair of goals in his first three games of action, then erupted for a hat trick against Matt Murray and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in early November.

"That's when my confidence grew," Boeser says. "Actually it skyrocketed. I had the most confidence I've ever had. I knew I could play in this league."

Once Boeser started scoring, he set a goal of 20 goals for the season. He reached that by Christmas. The rest is in the Canucks' history books.

"What he has given our family, through hockey, has enlightened our family," Laurie says. "Duke and I are so fortunate our kids have been able to help take care of us and offer these experiences."

"The whole team is aware of it," Horvat said. "I'm aware of what he's gone through, what his dad has gone through. He's always talking about him and trying to help him out the best he can, which just tells you what kind of kid he is."

Over the summer, Duke was well enough to serve as a coach for Brock's Da Beauty League team. He wore Canucks sweatpants and a windbreaker as he stood behind the bench at a local high school and watched, from ice level, his son dominating. After the playoff finals, Duke followed the team to the locker room to celebrate. Along the way he saw Boeser's summer teammate Nate Schmidt, the defenseman for the Vegas Golden Knights.

"You gotta be behind the bench all the time. You're good luck!" Schmidt said to a beaming Duke. "And how about your kid, huh? He's a special one."