Watching all this vintage hockey while I’m at home has provided an opportunity to catch games I never would have seen. But taking in old games isn’t a new pastime. It used to be a pretty frequent activity for me.
Moving from middle into high school, I had a decent little library of hockey games on VHS. It started with taping the All-Star Games, but eventually moved into the regular season — home openers, maybe a Saturday afternoon game that had a marquee matchup, whenever the occasion called for it. These helped to fill the time in the summers, maybe putting in a game with yet another Cam Neely hat trick while I ignored my summer reading, who’s to say.
To tape the final game at the Boston Garden — The Last Hurrah — on Sept. 26, 1995, was clearly a no-brainer. This one would earn it’s own tape, not tacked onto the back half of an eight-hour cartridge, so that I could relive whatever the Bruins and Montreal Canadiens had in store for the evening. It was an exhibition game, divided into two 25-minute halves instead of three periods to maximize the festive portion of the night.
It was an education in itself. I knew Johnny Bucyk, Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Bobby Orr of course, but I gained a little appreciation for Derek Sanderson and John Pierson, by then TV personalities but fondly remembered by the faithful for their time on the ice. And there were names I’d never heard at all, guys like Gary Doak, Fern Flaman, Leo Boivin and Bill Quackenbush. I was pretty familiar with tracking down books and almanacs at the library to soak up as much of the history as I could, and these were new names to bring to those searches.
But none of this — the goals, games on tape, studying of hockey cards, historical retellings — prepared me for Normand Léveillé.
★ ★ ★
At 5’10” and 175 lbs. in his playing days, Léveillé was the sort of sturdy, skilled forward that the Bruins were built for. It was the peak of the Rick Middleton and Barry Pederson era, who each used a devastating combination of skill, defensive awareness and creativity to wreak havoc on the ice. This extended to the backline, too, with Bourque and Brad Park anchoring a defense that was responsible first and opportunistic when appropriate. It’s this thinking that made Léveillé a natural fit when he went to the Bruins with the 14th pick in the 1981 draft.
He got into 66 games that rookie season, with a respectable 14 goals and 19 assists for a player who would turn 19 four months into the campaign. Though footage from that era is understandably spotty, some of the game clips of him at that time do show him playing on the left alongside Middleton and Pederson, others with Terry O’Reilly and Tom Fergus, clearly illustrating that the Bruins hoped, at the very least, that he would be a top-six weapon throughout the 1980s.
He was on a point-per-game pace in 1982-83, with 3 goals and 6 assists over 9 games. The Bruins were 5-1-2 entering his last game and would eventually meet the New York Islanders for a six-game conference final in the spring. But that night in Vancouver would end in a 3-2 loss to the Canucks and mark the end of Léveillé’s playing days. He collapsed in the locker room after complaining of dizziness — the result of a brain aneurysm. He spent 28 days in a coma and 383 in the hospital. When he awoke, his faculties were all present, but physically, his right side was paralyzed and his speech impeded. He was 19, and that was the end of his time in professional hockey. The Bruins would carry on without their young star.
★ ★ ★
The game itself was not especially memorable — it took rewatching it during this quarantine to remember that Ray Bourque scored, or that the final six Bruins to play hockey on its ice were Bourque, Neely, Adam Oates, Dave Reid, Kyle McLaren and Blaine Lacher. It was the parade of former Bruins that kept me coming back, fast-forwarding through the game itself to relive.
The procession of Boston alumni flowed alphabetically, followed by the players with their numbers retired at the end. This created a sense of fairness, as well as allowing the Bruins to introduce Orr, likely to produce the biggest cheer, at the end.
But the greatest ovation came midway through the alphabet. Helped onto the ice by Bourque and Don Sweeney, Léveillé steps down onto the red carpet holding his cane. He then turns it horizontally, while Bourque helps him find his grip, and Bourque carefully guides him off the carpet and onto the ice, where his skates take hold and he’s able to glide onto the ice.
The crowd of former Bruins surround him and grab him in a mass bear hug. Bourque grips his wrist and helps him raise it in the air. Announcer Bob Wilson exclaims a triumphant “Normand Léveillé!” to the roaring Garden. The fans are now screaming louder than they had for anyone else to that point. Cuts to random closeups reveal that everyone in the building is suddenly sobbing. Hell, I’m welling up just recounting all this, and I’ve watched this hundreds of times and knew exactly what I was getting into when I started writing. It’s not that it still affects me after all these years, it’s that it hits an even deeper place emotionally as I get older and I can begin to better put the years in perspective.
At the time, Léveillé was 32 years old. Patrice Bergeron is 34 right now, as was Bourque when he grabbed ahold of Léveillé’s cane to help him onto the ice. If all had gone according to plan, Léveillé would have been skating on the left of Oates and Neely that day, a productive forward still basking in glow of NHL stardom. That’s not how it worked out, but on the last night of the Boston Garden, he secured one of its greatest moments.
★ ★ ★
There’s another video I discovered while pulling all this together. In 1996, the Centre Normand-Léveillé in Drummondville, Québec was founded, offering programs and camps for people living with disabilities, and the center pulled together a quick video, in French, tracing him from being drafted by the Bruins, through his aneurysm, his final skate and finally, the center’s opening.
I watched at least three times — it was as revelatory and emotional as anything else. At its conclusion, he appears wearing a Bruins polo shirt, gives a thumbs up, smiles and says, “Merci beaucoup.”