The night his hockey career ended, the night he almost died, Normand Leveille made his way into the Bruins locker room between periods in Vancouver. No one in the stands suspected he was in trouble, that the arteriovenous malformation inside his head was bleeding, life melting out of the smiling, energetic, chatty kid from Montreal by the second.
Earlier that Saturday night in Pacific Coliseum, the 19-year-old Leveille was driven hard into the sideboards by Canucks winger Marc Crawford, who today is the Los Angeles Kings head coach. It was not a bad hit, not illegal, unethical, or unfair. All in all, clean by hockey standards. But without question, it was a pounding, and Leveille's head banged hard up near the top of the sideboard.
Play did not stop. No penalty was called. For the most part, it was one of those unnoticed, even insignificant plays that happen scores of times in every game. Contact sports have their, shall we say, "moments," and it is those very moments that bring fans into the building. Hockey, when played at its best, is a seductive blend of skilled artistry and blatant aggression, and the two can be a dangerous blend.
It's usually only when the contactees are left unresponsive, as Patrice Bergeron was yesterday at the Garden, that we are forced to remind ourselves of the dangers inherent in the game. Much like football, hockey can be a very ugly game. And not just hockey and football, of course, but all contact sports, and even some sports that are more genteel.
Just as the Garden was brought to an abrupt, eerie silence when Bergeron was knocked cold and fell unresponsive to the ice, Fenway Park came to a stunned, gut-wrenching silence the night of Aug. 18, 1967, when Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton fired a fastball that drilled Tony Conigliaro in the head. Tony C, the kid from Swampscott, was left with a hole in his left eye and a career all but finished.
As evening fell in the Hub of Hockey, it was learned that Bergeron escaped what could have been a catastrophic injury. He suffered a broken nose and concussion, according the club's injury report, and had full use of his extremities.
According to a number of reports, print and electronic, during the game, Bergeron's parents made the trip from their Quebec City home and were at the Garden for the game. No doubt they were enveloped in the horror of seeing their son slump to the ice along the rearboards late in the first period.
The night (Oct. 23, 1982) Leveille's head banged against the dasher, and he eventually made his way to Boston's bench under his own power, the hit instantly brought me out of my seat in the press box. In 30 years of covering the NHL, I haven't done that more than two or three times, and in every other case, the player who was pasted to the boards, or clobbered in open ice (to wit: Scott Stevens putting a shoulder into Paul Kariya in the Stanley Cup finals), suffered no serious or lingering consequences. And thank goodness for that.
When I see one of those hits, I think immediately of Leveille, and how thin life's margins can be sometimes . . . maybe all the time. The Flyers seem to need a refresher course in that reality, given that the hit by Randy Jones is the third menacing hit that club has delivered in the last six weeks. Some of these hits would embarrass even their Broad Street Bully forebears. There is a vast difference between beating someone up and delivering menacing, hurtful, potentially paralyzing hits.
When the team bus boarded late that afternoon outside the Westin Bay Shore, Leveille was this smiling playful kid, dressed up in suit jacket and tie, learning his way on what was then a beloved and embraced team in our city's sports culture. It looked as if he would become an NHL star, his hard-charging legs reminding some of Canadiens great Yvon Cournoyer, known as the Roadrunner for the way he dashed around the ice.
The next time I saw Leveille, it was behind the swinging doors of a hospital ward in downtown Vancouver. He remained unconscious, his head bandaged, surgeons having worked frantically and effectively to mend the arterial "blowout" inside his head. It was days before he would wake up.
The day in that hospital ward, I remember Jean Ratelle, another of the French-speaking Bruins, touching the side of the gurney and whispering a word or two of French to the fallen little Bruin. There was no return salutation. It was excruciating to witness, and somewhat, oh, ironic, in that Leveille was such a dynamic physical specimen. His upper thighs still bulged with muscle. His chest remained perfectly sculpted, a work worthy of a Michelangelo piece of marble.
But there he remained, still, unconscious, and only later, after months of physical therapy back home in Montreal, would he regain partial use of his legs, enabling him to walk with crutches and then a cane. He worked diligently with speech therapists to piece together his shattered bits of vocabulary.
It was not the inherent danger of the game, per se, that nearly ended Leveille's life, according to doctors. He was born with the AVM, and they said it could have begun to leak or "blow out" at any time in his life. A quarter-century later, that is but a footnote to it all. Nonetheless, he was rocked by the Crawford hit, made his way later to the locker room, and then soon showed symptoms analogous with a stroke, prompting Jim Kausek, then the club's physical therapist, to alert arena staff that an ambulance was needed to get Leveille to the hospital.
Within 48 hours of surgery, I sat next to Leveille's parents as they met the first time with the surgeon who saved their son's life. His mother spoke virtually no English, while his father, a truck driver, navigated well with his broken English.
The doctor was sensitive and caring, but also blunt, making it clear as they wept that Normand remained in danger and, if he survived the initial days after surgery, likely would be in for a monumental struggle to recover speech and motor skills. I don't recall if the doctor said whether Leveille would ever play again, but I do remember thinking, while sitting next to the weeping parents, that nothing could be more inconsequential at the moment.
Leveille's father pleaded with the doctor to help his son. And he wept.
"I try to sleep," he said. "But I can't. I close my eyes, and all I see is Normand."