Normand Leveille was back in Boston yesterday, slightly more than a quarter-century after he suited up for his final NHL game. He had dinner at Tresca, Ray Bourque's restaurant in the North End, and he spent the night in the alumni box on the ninth floor of the Garden, watching the Canadiens and Bruins battle away like in the good ol' days.
All in all, it was a pretty nice 45th birthday. You only had to see Leveille's smile, wide as the red line, to know that.
"He loves Boston," said his wife, the former Denise Blanchette, sitting by his side, the couple surrounded by friends who made the trip down from Montreal for his birthday celebration. "He told me the day we were married - just a year ago - that when he dies, he wants to go home . . . he wants to go to Boston. This is his town. He lives in Montreal, but he says his heart will always be in Boston."
As Denise spoke, Normand nodded. And smiled.
She has heard it all before, and knows what her husband will tell her even before he says it. Longtime partners know how that works, for reasons good and bad. If you are together long enough, that's just the way it is, and the Leveilles dated for more than a decade before they married. He says a few words in French, she takes it from there.
"I loved him since I was 9 years old," she said, thinking back to their childhood days in Montreal. "No, wait, I was 12 years old, and he was 9 years old. Oh, I don't know . . . I've loved him forever."
When he's fully rested, she said, Normand is fluent in French, and keeps up an active and animated conversation. His smile is ever-present. He likes to laugh. As the day wears on, and he tires, speaking becomes a struggle. It has been that way for most of the last 25 years, since that Octo ber night he took ill on the Boston bench and was left clinging to life in a Vancouver hospital.
"He tells me he doesn't care about being paralyzed," said Denise, her husband's right arm and leg never fully recovering from the brain hemorrhage he suffered that night. "It's that he can't speak - that frustrates him. It's very hard for him that he can't speak."
Leveille, a second-year winger for the Bruins in 1981-82, was struck by an arteriovenous malformation, a congenital condition that caused massive bleeding inside his head. Shortly before he took ill that evening, Leveille was drilled into the boards at Pacific Coliseum, the stiff check by Marc Crawford (now the Los Angeles Kings coach) rattling his head hard against the top of the boards.
According to Denise, it took Leveille five years to remember details of that night.
"He was on the bench, and he wanted aspirin," she said, Normand nodding and looking out over the ice as the Canadiens and Bruins participated in the pregame skate. "He remembers going to the bench . . . and when he was there, telling Jean Ratelle that he had a headache. But it was [trainer] Jim Kausek who said to him, 'You don't need aspirin - you need to get to the hospital.' He could see the side of Normand's face was paralyzed, yes? And he remembers going to the room . . . and falling down."
He also remembers being in the ambulance, with Ratelle at his side, trying to talk, unaware that his career had ended, or that surgeons would soon be in a frantic race to save his life.
"Jean Ratelle told him not to speak," she said. "And he asked Normand, 'Where do you hurt?' And he said, 'I hurt in my head.' And that's all he remembers."
These days, the Leveilles live in Anjou, a suburb of Montreal. Normand for years has helped run the Centre Normand Leveille, a camp for handicapped children, as well as a charitable foundation in his name. His wife is a supervisor for the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Montreal. They make at least three trips a year to Boston and try to see at least one Bruins game. Bruins goalie Manny Fernandez, recovering from knee surgery, left the Leveilles tickets this season when the Bruins visited Montreal.
"He's a very nice guy, Manny," said Denise. "That was really nice of him."
Next to Boston, and of course his wife, Leveille's other passion is golf. He usually shoots around 110. If he could swing with both arms, he might do much better, but so what? He tees it up and swings through with his left arm. The score is not important. Being out there is what counts. And when you've been through what he went through that night more than a quarter-century ago, it's just the being that counts.
"Not long ago, he broke two ribs," said Denise, noting that her husband fell at home. "He was hurting, you know? But he's on the telephone, telling the doctor he wants to play golf. Play golf!"
Leveille's best pal, Normand Duclos, a Montreal firefighter, usually joins him on the links. For a birthday present, Leveille's grand ami gave him a new putter.
"He loves that putter," said Denise, shaking her head, the familiar and forlorn look of a golf widow. "I am not kidding. He sleeps with it."
Duclos, standing behind his buddy as Denise spoke, reached over and patted Leveille soundly on the shoulder. "That's my friend," he said. The two pals smiled, coconspirators in driving a wedge - or putter - into the marriage.
Though she thinks she knows what he'll say before he says it, or how he feels at any given moment, Denise couldn't read her husband's look a couple of months ago. Was he sad? Upset? Something was wrong. She just knew.
"It was his medication, for epilepsy," she said. "He got mixed up."
In the 12 years they have been together, said Denise, she has never seen Normand have an epileptic seizure. The medicine keeps it under control. The trouble was, she said, he lost track of his medication schedule and accidentally overdosed.
"He's just getting better now . . . it took a long time," she said. "The doctor said if he hadn't come to the hospital when he did, he would have died."
The game about to begin last night, Normand reminded his wife that he had something he must say. Make sure, he said to her, that he's able to pass a message to Patrice Bergeron. Late last October, nearly 25 years to the day Leveille played his last shift, Bergeron was felled on the Garden ice, drilled headfirst into the rear boards by the Flyers' Randy Jones. Bergeron suffered a Grade 3 concussion, has yet to return, and could be sidelined for the season. He considers himself lucky. It could have been worse . . . much worse.
"He wants Patrice to take his time," said Denise, her husband somber now, and nodding. "The head is very important. He doesn't want Patrice to end up like him. Normand says he should take his time . . . he has a long time to play. You understand, yes?"
Leveille, dressed all in black, spent the night among friends. Cam Neely visited. Gary Doak, too. Dale Hamilton Powers, faithful soldier of the front office for more than 30 years, handed him an autographed Bruins sweater and took pictures. He'll do some shopping downtown today and make the drive back north tomorrow. He'll be back once or twice more this season. When the weather warms up, he hopes to play a round of golf, maybe two, with his buddy Bourque. The new putter will be kept warm until then.
"It's his city; he wants to die here," said Denise, aided in translation by Erik Larson, another friend from Montreal, who is an
That's her husband's idea of a joke, she said. And by her side, her husband, smiling and laughing away the night of his 45th birthday, reveled in his own good humor.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.