For many Minnesotans, it’s hard to imagine life without the Minnesota Wild. We’re surrounded by hockey culture, with the Wild at the center.
But Joel Boyd, MD, remembers when the Wild first began – he’s been there through it all. He became the first Black team physician in NHL history when the Wild began in 2000. He was there, caring for the athletes, when Minnesota native Darby Hendrickson scored the team’s very first home goal. He was there when the team beat the Avalanche in overtime during the 2003 playoffs, when no one expected the Wild to get as far as they did. And he’s been there through all the ups and downs since.
This year, as the Wild celebrates their 20th season, we’re also celebrating Dr. Boyd’s 20th season as team physician.
Rewind to the beginning
It all started long before the Wild officially became Minnesota’s NHL franchise in the year 2000.
Dr. Boyd grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. He loved all sports, and he played football, basketball and street hockey with his friends. He went on to play football in college, but he still remembers the first time he felt like a true fan of hockey, when he was about 18 years old.
“When I graduated high school, the Washington Capitals came to D.C. They had an African American player on their team, Mike Marson – the second African American player ever to play in the NHL. My friends and I were all very excited to see him play. From that point on, I was a true hockey fan,” Dr. Boyd said.
While in medical school, Dr. Boyd found himself back in the hockey world when he became a fellow at the University of Western Ontario and cared for the athletes on the London Knights, a junior ice hockey team, and the Mustangs, the University’s men’s ice hockey team. There, he discovered his love for covering games and being involved on the medical side of the sport.
Dr. Boyd’s path to the Wild
Many people assume all careers in hockey stem from being a star hockey player and then moving on to a hockey-related career from there. But for the Boyd family, every member of the family has found a career in hockey not by playing, but simply by loving the game.
Dr. Boyd’s daughter is the vice president for strategy and analytics for the Seattle Kraken, an NHL expansion team that will begin competing next season. His son is the director of youth and community development for the same team.
“I always told my kids, ‘you can always be smart about the game of hockey even if you’re not the most talented in the game.’ This is why you can have a career in hockey without being a star player. I found my way to hockey because my love for the game and my medical practice came together,” Dr. Boyd said.
When Dr. Boyd looks back, he can see that many of his experiences led to his eventual career with the Wild. He arrived in Minnesota at the perfect time to establish himself in the medical sports community before the Wild became a team.
He worked for the state high school league, the Minnesota Moose, USA hockey and even a roller hockey team called the Arctic Blast. He was team physician for the U.S. men’s hockey team at the 1998 Winter Olympics. He was also involved with the NHL’s Diversity Task Force.
When he learned that Minnesota was getting an NHL franchise, he was immediately interested in getting involved as a team physician. And because of his experience and connections in the sport, he was interviewed and then selected to be the team physician for the Minnesota Wild. With this role, he became the first Black team physician in NHL history.
“It really came to me at the right place and the right time. I had a lot of support, and all those things together led to my opportunity with the Wild,” Dr. Boyd said.
The first few years with the Wild
And it truly started out with a bang. The Minnesota Wild was a good team from the start, which helped to establish a strong base of fans in a state that already embraced hockey enthusiastically.
During one of the first few seasons, in 2003, Dr. Boyd traveled with the team during their run for the Stanley Cup. The games were on the west coast, back-to-back, and they had to fly to Vancouver late one night between games six and seven.
“All the guys were exhausted, trying to rehydrate and rest on the plane before the next game. It was just crazy,” Dr. Boyd said.
And then, after landing in Vancouver around three in the morning, their team bus collided with a limousine.
“Everyone was okay, but it was a crazy night. We didn’t get to the hotel until five in the morning, and we had to play that day. We ended up winning that game! It was one of the craziest 24 hour stretches that I can remember.” Dr. Boyd said.
While he doesn’t always travel with the team, Dr. Boyd attends all the home games, which results in long days. Sometimes, Dr. Boyd will go from work at TRIA straight to the rink to prepare for the game.
He and the other team medical staff are onsite to take care of anything that happens during the game. While fans pack the stands and watch the action, he and the other physicians standby just behind the benches. They help with everything from minor pains to sprains, strains and broken bones.
At the end of the game, they check on the players, and then check on the opposing team as well.
“On game days, I typically don’t get home until about 11 p.m. But it’s always worth it,” Dr. Boyd said.
Reflections on 20 years
Now, 20 years later, Dr. Boyd is about to begin his 20th season as team physician. He’s seen a lot of growth and change over the years.
“I’ve had the chance to be around players like Marian Gaborik all the way to Mikko Koivu. I remember when we drafted Koivu and he was literally a kid – and I watched him go on to become the captain. It’s amazing to be there for their careers,” Dr. Boyd said.
And because he’s been there through every season, his presence as team doctor is a consistent part of the players’ experience. He’s gotten to know the players on a personal level, especially when he travels with the team during playoffs or occasional away games.
“The times I remember most are the times I travel with the team. We all have team meals together, and it really does create that family feel. It helps the trust level go up, and that helps if anything medical comes up,” Dr. Boyd said.
John Worley, athletic trainer for the Minnesota Wild, knows firsthand how integral Dr. Boyd is to the team. They’ve worked together for over 11 years, since Worley joined the medical staff in 2009.
Worley calls Dr. Boyd a “pioneer in the world of NHL hockey,” and he knows the athletes completely trust Dr. Boyd. Worley said Dr. Boyd’s personality allows them to feel comfortable around him and confident in his orthopedic decisions.
“And his laugh is contagious,” Worley said. “In his presence it is very recognizable that he possesses a true passion for his work and the game of hockey.”
An unusual 20th season
When Dr. Boyd and the rest of the team and fans pictured the 20th season, nobody expected it to be during a global pandemic. But the league is planning on a shortened season, with careful safety guidelines in place to keep the players and staff members safe.
As a medical team, Dr. Boyd and the other care providers will still be taking care of the team. They’re still planning on their regular physicals before the season begins, and they’ll be on site to care for the team during games.
“It will be strange not having fans at the Xcel Energy Center, but as medical staff, we spend most of our time focused on the ice and the players anyway. I think the biggest difference will be the absence of the crowd cheering,” Dr. Boyd said.
It is sure to be a memorable season – not only due to the COVID-19 precautions, but also for the team itself.
Dr. Boyd has been around the team long enough to see the ups of downs – some seasons have been unexpectedly successful, while some seasons have been shorter than expected. He’s feeling optimistic and excited about where the team is headed during their 20th year.
“It should be a really fun season. We have young, fast players, and the leadership and ownership of the team is doing a great job,” Dr. Boyd said. “I’m looking forward to a good season and continued growth from there.”