July 14, 2013

Normand Leveille

The 14th overall selection of the 1981 Entry Draft, Normand Leveille was a highly touted NHL prospect. Combining good speed and great puck abilities, Leveille lit up the QMJHL in 1980-81, leading to his lofty draft position. Leveille was so highly touted that he was selected immediately before Al MacInnis. Other players who were selected after Leveille include Chris Chelios, Mike Vernon and John Vanbiesbrouck.

Despite his small size at 5'10" and 175lbs, Leveille immediately stepped into the Bruins lineup. His infusion of speed and excitement thrilled Bruins fans as he enjoyed a modest rookie season as an 18 year old. He scored 14 goals and 33 points in 66 games before an ankle injury ended his season. Terry impressed long time Bruin Terry O'Reilly so much that the winger turned coach said Leveille "he's going to be good. Hell, he's going to be better than Yvan Cournoyer for the Canadiens."

Leveille looked to be in fine form early in his sophomore season of 1982-83. He got off to a hot start, with 3 goals and 9 points in the first 9 games. While stardom seemed imminent, tragedy struck in that 9th game on October 23rd, 1982. The Bruins were visiting the Vancouver Canucks at the Pacific Coliseum. Normand scored both goals in a 3-2 loss for Boston, but more importantly his NHL career ended that night, and a battle for his life began. In the first intermission Normand suffered a brain aneurysm. He was just 19 years old and was destined to be an NHL star, and then poof, it was all gone in a moment.

The aneurysm was determined to be congenital problem -- caused by a defective blood vessel in his brain and not related to any injury suffered playing hockey, including a hard hit courtesy of Vancouver's Marc Crawford in the opening period. The undetectable blood vessel problem in Leveille's brain had been "a Time bomb since birth," something that could have been triggered by an otherwise harmless sneeze. There were no warning signs of the condition, although agent Bob Perno said Leveille had complained of a headache and shoulder pains prior to the game. After 7 hours of surgery and 3 weeks in a coma, he survived and has been able to live a productive life, though many of his motor skills remain shot. Verbal communication remains a great challenge for him..

Although often forgotten about by the rest of the NHL, Leveille remains a fan favorite in Boston. When the Boston Garden was closed down in 1995, the Bruins held "A Last Hurrah" to honor the old building. NHL greats like Jean Beliveau, Rocket Richard, Stan Mikita, Bobby Orr, Cam Neely, Phil Esposito, Ray Bourque and Johnny Bucyk were all there, but it was Leveille who stole the show. He warmed the hearts of all Bruins fans when he joined the Bruins greats for one last skate around the Boston Gardens. An ecstatic Leveille donned Bruins jersey #19 and, with the help of Ray Bourque, took one last lap around the Gardens. The Gardens fans were filled with tearful emotion as they gave Normand a standing ovation.

Leveille became an advocate and fund-raiser for the disabled in the years after his brain aneurysm ended his career. In 1995, he founded the Normand Leveille Centre, a 200-acre recreational camp for the handicapped, located in Drummondville, Quebec.


Saul Wisnia said...

Thank you for this lovely tribute. I was a teenager in Boston when Leveille got hurt and it was heartbreaking to all of us Bruins fans. Watching his "final skate" in 1995 brought tears again, but this time we were smiling through them -- as was he. Ray Boueque as always the classiest guy using his stick to guide his teammate across the ice. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAo46-Rpqiw

Bostones said...

Come to think of Normand Leveille every once in a while. One of the most promising rookie forwards I have seen play for the Bruins. Normand proved it by open up his sophomore season leading the then very young Boston Bruins team. Led by stars like Ray Bourque and Normand Leveille, Barry Pederson and Rick Middleton. The Bruins could have found a dynasty team here if tragedies like Leveille and later Gord Kluzak hadn't happen. Normand Leveille was according to Harry Sinden in the summer of 1981. Sinden said "This kid is best forward the Bruins have drafted in a long time. He's quick and fast. He skates like a Russian". This was one of the best quotes 18 year old Normand Leveille could hear. He made the NHL as an 18-year old. A tough checker, he had a tremendous shot and hockey sense to go along with his lightning quick skating.