Archetypal tales of what might have been in this sporting life are most certainly unfortunate, but rarely do they come across as genuinely tragic. The untimely interruption of Cam Neely’s career due to the ever-present knee and hip problems he dealt with was most certainly a splash of cold water. But I’m certain that Cameron would describe his misfortune as piddling in comparison to the story I offer here.
Normand Léveillé was born on January 10th, 1963. Always the thin, wiry kid with his size peaking at 5’10”, 175 lbs, he made up for his lack of great physique with a shifty, crafty playing style, combining a hugely high top-speed with great stick work.
His elite playing career began in the way most talented French-Canadian kids start off – playing in the Q. His numbers as a rookie in the ’79-’80 season with the Chicoutimi Saguenéens were fairly modest – 36 points in 60 games. His sophomore season, however, saw him rip through the league, tallying 101 points in 72 outings. Léveillé also averaged slightly above 2 points a game in the QMJHL’s postseason, which saw them be defeated by the eventual Memorial Cup champion, Dale Hawerchuk-led Cornwall Royals. Nevertheless, Norm garnered up bucket-loads of attention and was NHL-bound. Little did anyone realize the peak and the valley would occur in practically the same spot…
The draft class of 1981 is something of a pantheon for new beginnings in the NHL. The top 10 included names such as Hawerchuk, Bob Carpenter, Ron Francis, and Grant Fuhr. Léveillé was selected by Boston with the 14th overall pick, directly ahead of Al MacInnis and before other supremely talented players such as Chris Chelios and Mike Vernon. If this isn’t indicative of the sort of explosive package Normy was, I don’t know what is! He was quick on the draw in training camp despite his diminutive frame, impressing net-minding great turned head coach Gerry “Cheesie” Cheevers so greatly that he had no choice but to include him on the 20-man roster. Instantly a fan favorite because of the speed and excitement he infused into the team, he had a rookie season that most certainly was worthy of recognition for an 18 year old, scoring 14 goals and 33 points over 66 games before an ankle injury cut his season short. The admirable Terry O’Reilly had to say of Norm: “He’s going be good. Hell, he’s going be better than Yvan Cournoyer from the Habs [at Cournoyer’s own game].” With the bar set, Norm went into ’82-83 with a renewed sense of purpose. Even the best anticipation can not prepare you for all that may come, however.
In the first 9 match-ups of the next campaign, Léveillé averaged a point a game, making stardom seem imminent for the likeable scrawny kid from Quebec. In that 9th game, he scored both of Boston’s goals in a 3-2 road loss to the Canucks. That was a loss which should be described as nothing other than completely insignificant compared to the loss that occurred during the first intermission – the loss of a promising career.
Heading down the tunnel, Léveillé collapsed and was taken to a Vancouver hospital, where it was quickly determined that he had suffered a brain aneurysm. This was triggered by an un-diagnosed congenital problem – a defective blood vessel in the brain. There was no connection between this episode and any hockey-related incident. Thus the battle for the young man’s life began – 7 hours of surgery and 3 weeks in a coma were the most prominent stepping stones. In the end, it was clear that his athletic career had reached its conclusion, but an alternative life wasn’t un-doable. He has lived productively since, but we’ll get to that in a minute. There’s another tearjerker moment I’d like to touch upon first.
September 26th, 1995 was the date of the venerable Boston Garden’s closing ceremony. Following a 3-0 win over the hated Montreal Canadiens in an exhibition match-up, every living legend was gathered together to pay their due respects to the building with such an expansive history, including some opponents such as Gordie Howe, Stan Mikita, Rocket Richard, and Jean Beliveau. Despite the unbelievable naming bill, the return of a beaming young man from Quebec shined the brightest (his appearance being the first time he had been to the Garden since the abrupt conclusion of his playing time). Wearing his classic #19 sweater and aided by captain Ray Bourque, Normy took the last skate around that ice surface with the smile of a kid tasting ice cream for the first time. This received the most meaningful standing ovation in “Gahden” history. As if any other reaction could come about, not counting the abundant tears.
During his recovery process, Léveillé became a man of vision. He knew that it was his moral duty to dedicate all of his energies to the providing of therapy to others suffering from light-to-moderate disabling conditions. In 1995, he founded the Centre Normand-Léveillé in Drummondville, Quebec, as a haven for children (and people of all ages) at a physical, mental, or sensory disadvantage. The center is a fantastic respite vacation spot with great accommodations and enjoyable recreation in a beautiful, natural environment that is accessible in all seasons. Still semi-invalid himself, Léveillé demonstrates heroism on a daily basis to those who idolize him. Please click the link for the center’s website provided on the front page of this blog and give some support for Norm’s cause by becoming a follower via email or social networking. The human spirit is still alive.
If we should deal out justice only, in this world, who would escape? No, it is better to be generous, and in the end more profitable, for it gains gratitude for us, and love. – Mark Twain