WILMINGTON, Mass. -– Johnny Boychuk is the first to admit he had doubts that his NHL dreams would come true while toiling for a half decade in the minors. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that it took a little while for the news that he had been nominated for an NHL award to sink in.
Boychuk has been chosen by the Boston chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association as the Bruins' nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the "player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey."
The Masterton is often awarded to a player who has overcome a serious injury or illness to continue his career, but it is designed to honor players who triumph over all kinds of challenges and adversity while remaining steadfast in their devotion to the game.
Boychuk certainly qualifies on that front, though he was still taken aback by the news of his nomination.
"Not at all," Boychuk said when asked if he had expected to be considered for the Masterton. "When I heard, I was like, 'What?' Then I was like, 'OK. Come to think of it you did actually tough it out for quite some time there and finally getting to play here, it kind of makes sense.'
"It's great," Boychuk added. "It's an honor to be mentioned for any award, especially this one for what it means to persevere and what you've overcome throughout your career. For me, spending time in the minors for I don't even know how many years, it seemed like a long time. Going from there, playing forward to coming to Boston and getting a chance to play defense and sticking in the NHL and contributing to the team, it's all just been phenomenal."
Boychuk spent five full seasons in the American Hockey League, playing for five different teams in two organizations before getting his first chance at regular NHL duty with the Bruins in 2009-10. Even that season, Boychuk began the year as Boston's seventh defenseman, and was a healthy scratch for much of the first half of the season. He finally got his shot to play when injuries struck on the Bruins blue line, and Boychuk made the most of it, not giving coach Claude Julien a reason to send him back to the press box.
"At one point it looked like he was going to be that minor-leaguer who was going to be an All-Star there and spend most of his career in that league," Julien said. "He got an opportunity with us and he took full advantage of it. People that remember, he was a healthy scratch for a long time before he even got a chance to be a regular on our hockey club. But when he did, because he'd worked so hard as an extra, he kept himself in real good shape and kept himself as sharp as he could, when that opportunity came he took advantage of it."
Boychuk has been a fixture on the Boston blue line since getting that chance in 2009-10, playing a key role in the Bruins' Cup run last spring and getting rewarded with a three-year, $10.1-million extension earlier this season. But Boychuk never forgot the long journey it took to get here, when he was bouncing from team to team in the AHL and even switching positions when Colorado tried to turn him into an energy-line forward.
Boychuk finally got his break in 2008 when the Bruins acquired him from the Avalanche for forward Matt Hendricks. The Bruins made it clear that they saw Boychuk's future on the blue line, but it still wasn't clear that future would carry him beyond the AHL. He excelled at that level, winning the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL's top defensemen following a 20-goal campaign in 2008-09, but Boychuk still had doubts that he’d make it to the NHL as he lived year to year on two-way deals as the parent club signed him to qualifying offers to retain his rights with minimal raises.
"Oh yeah, absolutely, especially when you're playing fourth-line forward," Boychuk said. "Not really wanting to play forward, but doing it because that's what the team wanted you to do. And then every year getting qualified and knowing as soon as they qualified you you're kind of stuck with them for another year. When they traded me and [Bruins assistant general manager] Don Sweeney told me I was going to be playing defense, I was pretty thrilled just by that fact. Then having a great year in Providence and getting a chance to play up here was just an excellent thing for me. Now getting a chance to play 20 minutes a night, you can't really ask for any more.
"Looking back at it now, I probably never would have thought I'd be here, but I always wanted to try to stay positive and tried to be as positive as I can," Boychuk added. "I kept working hard and wanted to keep playing the game that I love."
That dedication and determination turned Boychuk into an NHL regular, a Stanley Cup champion, and now maybe even a Masterton Trophy winner.