Young, promising Bruins forward Normand Leveille was in his second pro season, just like Bills safety Damar Hamlin, and playing in his 75th NHL game when a medical emergency while playing one night in Vancouver nearly proved fatal.
Leveille, only 19 years old that October 1982 night, was rushed by ambulance between periods at Pacific Coliseum, his stunned, helpless teammates left behind to finish the game against the Canucks.
Few of Leveille’s Black-and-Gold pals fully understood what was happening in the moment, that blood was seeping from his brain, that life’s margins suddenly had narrowed to within the width of a puck.
Similarly, life’s odds squeezed tight for the stricken Hamlin, whose heart stopped beating last Monday night on the field in Cincinnati. Most of his teammates stood on the field, shocked and crying, unable to offer more than prayer. It was unclear if Hamlin would live, if the game would be completed, if emotionally the Bills would be able to play this Sunday against the Patriots.
“What I remember is the commotion,” said Mike Milbury, then a 30-year-old Bruins defenseman, recalling the other day what it was like inside the dressing room prior to Leveille being whisked away by ambulance, “with doctors and people rushing into the trainer’s room. And I remember talking to Jim Kausek, who was like, ashen.”
“We’re in the locker room,” added Mike O’Connell, then 26 and also a blue liner, reached by telephone on Friday, “and all of sudden, people rushing in, people rushing out, ambulance shows up. And it’s like, ‘What’s happening here?’ Halfway through the intermission, all of a sudden, you know, all hell breaks loose.”
Kausek, the club’s young, sharp physical therapist, knew that Leveille was in dire trouble upon entering the trainer’s room between periods. In the closing moments of the first period, Leveille took a head-rattling smack along the boards from Canucks winger Marc Crawford.
No one on the ice or benches thought much of the hit. No one knew the congenital weak spot in Leveille’s brain, known as an AVM (arteriovenous malformation), was leaking blood and building pressure inside his skull.
“I feel dizzy,” Leveille told assistant coach Jean Ratelle, his French-speaking pal, as the two entered Kausek’s tiny room adjacent the dressing room.
One side of the winger’s face had fallen flaccid. He also struggled to execute simple commands, such as squeezing Kausek’s hand. The biggest tell of all, Kausek noted when reached Friday by telephone, was Leveille’s eyes: one pupil dilating, the other fixed.
“Right there, uh-oh,” Kausek recalled thinking, “that’s trouble.”
Kausek turned to Ratelle, urgency in his voice: “Ratty,” he said, “go down [the hall] and get [the Canucks’] team doctors, and run, run as fast as you can!”
Quick, qualified medical attention, including 6½ hours of emergency neurosurgery at Vancouver General Hospital, saved Leveille’s life. Similar urgent care last Monday, on the field and in the hospital, saved Hamlin.
It was clear to surgeons in Vancouver, when they spoke the next day, that Leveille would never play again. It would be 72-96 hours, in fact, before medical staff felt confident he would survive.
Fellow winger Rick Middleton left the rink that night knowing only that Leveille was rushed out by ambulance.
“You know, he must have been dinged, or something, no big deal, right? Guys got dinged all the time,” said Middleton, revisiting what was running through his mind. “After the game, I visited family in the area, got back to the hotel, maybe around 1 a.m., and I see Keith Crowder in the lobby, and his eyes are all welled up, and he tells me, ‘It’s Normie. They don’t know if he’s going to make it.’ ”
The Westin Bayshore Hotel, tucked in what was then a tranquil corner of the city, had all of Leveille’s teammates huddled in a room until nearly dawn. They had lost to the Canucks, 3-2, but the only discussion, as sunrise approached, was about the little dynamo of a teammate, the kid with the infectious smile and Yvon Cournoyer-like speed, who was clinging to life across town.
“We were up till 2 or 3 o’clock, or more,” recalled Milbury, “until we realized we weren’t doing anyone any good sitting there. So we tried to get whatever level of sleep we could.”
Sleep was imperative, if for no other reason than the fact the Bruins had to follow that Saturday night game in Vancouver with a game Sunday night in Los Angeles. The puck would drop at the LA Forum less than 24 hours after Leveille entered surgery, his concerned teammates awakening the next morning to learn only that he had survived the night.
There had been zero consideration given to whether or not to finish the game Saturday night in Vancouver.
The next morning, sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups as they quietly boarded the team bus in darkness, they left the hotel for the three-hour commercial flight to Los Angeles. A long, angst-filled day’s commute. The Kings awaited.
“Didn’t even cross our mind not to play,” said O’Connell. “That’s just the way it was.”
“None of us really wanted to go to Los Angeles and play the game,” added Milbury. “None of us wanted to finish the game in Vancouver. We were really rocked, and we didn’t know whether he was going to live or die.”
A little more than 40 years later, the partially paralyzed Leveille lives a good life back home in Quebec and the sports world is a vastly different place.
“Eventually, I guess we all knew we were going to have to move on,” said Milbury, thinking back to the events of October 1982. “It was a long time ago and kind of a different attitude. But the show must go on at some point or another.”
The NFL, though criticized by some for long deliberations in the moment, eventually suspended play last Monday, and later in the week canceled the game outright. It took the Bills much of the week to determine whether to play Sunday, though their spirits and determination were bolstered when news midweek began to turn positive for Hamlin.
In sharp contrast to the 1980s, pro athletes today routinely are granted time away from their teams for things such as the birth of babies and death of parents or illness to extended family members. They have the chance at least to consider their emotions. The Bills pondering whether to suit up six days after seeing a teammate brought back to life on the field? Even in the 1990s, any reluctance or hesitancy likely would have been deemed soft, perhaps cowardly.
“I can look back at it now and say, like then, ‘Well, yeah, we’re going to play the next game,’ ” noted O’Connell. “But things have changed dramatically from that point until now. Back then, most times, if you were having a baby you wouldn’t miss a game. Now it’s a whole different era — in a good way. Society, hockey, it’s all changed dramatically.”
Middleton, 28, and on his way to a 96-point season in 1982-83, meets up every year with his old pal “Normie” at the club’s September golf tournament. Middleton doesn’t speak French, and Leveille, smile still ever-present, only speaks a few words of English. But they share the language of hugs and smiles and memories.
The 1982-83 Bruins had to move on, noted Middleton, albeit sadly without Leveille. Hamlin won’t be on the field right now for the Bills, but by Middleton’s eye, they need to play.
“I’ve seen [Hamlin] is doing better,” noted Middleton. “Now … the game must go on. That’s what you do. Not to play, that doesn’t help him. He’d certainly want you to play, because he fought all year to help you to get where you were. He wants you to win the Super Bowl and he was part of it.”
Season’s biggest surprises, letdowns
The NHL reaches the midpoint of its 82-game schedule in the coming week, and we need to look no farther than Causeway Street to find the biggest surprise over the first three months.
With midseason at our doorstep, a look at the five biggest surprises and five biggest letdowns of the first half.
▪ Bruins — All they do is win. Almost. Even those rare times when they lose, they snap right back. After last Saturday’s overtime loss to the Sabres, they pulled off a 2-1 comeback win over the Penguins in the Winter Classic at Fenway, leaving them 8-0-0 in games following a loss.
They’ve been paced by the NHL’s most prolific offense, led by the hot-handed David Pastrnak (27 goals) and by Linus Ullmark, the league’s stingiest goalie, who was named an All-Star on Thursday for the first time in his career. An astounding 21-1-1, the 29-year-old ex-Sabre has shaken off his initial season of inconsistency in Boston to deliver Dominik Hasek-like numbers.
Behind the bench, Jim Montgomery has pulled the strings like a latter-day Scotty Bowman, quick to change the mix among the forwards or shorten the bench on those few nights when the offense needs to be goosed.
▪ Kraken — The sophomore upstarts will be at the Garden Thursday night (for Game No. 41 on the Bruins’ schedule) and they are in the thick of the mix for one of the West’s eight playoff seeds, currently dancing above the wild-card cut line.
They entered weekend play 21-12-4, a dramatic turnaround from their inaugural 2021-22 season, in which they went a moribund 27-49-6.
Unrestricted free agent pickup Andre Burakovsky, who won the Stanley Cup last season with the Avalanche, has helped stabilize an inexperienced offense. And top Rookie of the Year candidate Matty Beniers, a 20-year-old center from Hingham, looks like a clone of Ron Francis, the ex-Whalers great who is the Kraken’s general manager.
▪ Devils — They’ve slipped a little of late, not surprising for a roster with so much top-shelf, but inexperienced, talent. Until their stumble over the last three weeks, they were right on the Bruins’ heels for the top spot in the overall standings.
“Just give me average goaltending — that’s all I ask, just average,” said GM Tom Fitzgerald prior to the start of the season. Ex-Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek, 14-5-2 as the weekend approached, has delivered all of that and more after being hired as a free agent in July.
▪ Hurricanes — Their 5-3 loss Tuesday night on Broadway ended an 11-game winning streak for the former Forever .500s, who dumped the Bruins in the opening round of last spring’s playoffs.
The X-factor, no surprise, has been defenseman Brent Burns, a surprise addition in July via trade with San Jose, where he’d been a beast for 11 seasons. He’ll be 38 in March with some 1,300 games played, but the behemoth blue liner remains a rare force, with an uncanny knack for getting shots through from 50-plus feet.
▪ Jets — Veteran coach Paul Maurice walked away in the thick of the 2021-22 season and the Jets finished playoff DNQs for the first time since the spring of 2017.
Then they stripped Blake Wheeler, the popular ex-Bruins winger, of the captain’s “C” in the offseason, after hiring former Bruins coach Rick Bowness as their bench boss.
Et voila, here they are, refreshed under Bowness’s direction, getting elite netminding once again from Connor Hellebuyck (19 wins, second to Ullmark) and back-end production never seen before from seventh-year defenseman Josh Morrissey, playing like he robbed the same gene pool as fellow Albertan Cale Makar.
▪ Panthers — Rolled up the league’s best regular-season record (58-18-6) last year and then pulled off the biggest deal of the offseason, bringing in Matthew Tkachuk for scoring and grit.
But, man, it has been a struggle. The Sunrisers on Friday morning were 17-18-4, ranked 24th overall and 8 points out of a wild-card spot. Mercy. They need a 10-game winning streak in a hurry.
Tkachuk has delivered, about on pace for the 104 points he posted last season with Calgary, but little else has gone right, especially the goaltending.
▪ Avalanche — Last season’s Cup winner hasn’t struggled at Panthers-level, but their 19-15-3 mark heading into the weekend had them 2 points south of a wild-card spot in the West.
Star pivot Nathan MacKinnon missed 10-plus games, a serious dent to the offense, and continuing knee woes have kept captain Gabriel Landeskog out of the lineup all season. No telling how soon (if) he’ll be back this season.
Makar, the best defenseman in the game and the 2022 playoff MVP, is tracking slightly under his career-high 86 points of last season. Still a lineup with lots of good, but maybe not good enough to make the cut line if Landeskog doesn’t make it back.
▪ Flyers — They hired John Tortorella to be the rainmaker behind the bench, but old-school Torts only brought more gray clouds for the suffering Broad Streeters.
No denying the fact that injuries — including the seasonlong loss of Cam Atkinson — have played a big part in their bumblings. With a 15-17-7 mark, they approached weekend play 9 points out of wild-card position, setting up GM Chuck Fletcher to be a seller at the March 3 trade deadline.
Trouble is, Fletcher’s Flyers are on pace to DNQ for a third straight season and it’s possible he’ll be gone before the deadline. The sons of Tim Kerr haven’t missed the playoffs three straight years since the early ’90s. Kerr, 63, might still be good enough to make this lineup.
▪ Blue Jackets — OK, they weren’t exactly poised for a long Cup run, but they shouldn’t be this bad, especially after the unexpected jackpot that came their way when Johnny Gaudreau showed up, pen in hand, to sign his whopping UFA deal (seven years/$68.25 million).
Gaudreau (a point a game) hasn’t been half-bad, but the rest of the bunch has.As of Friday morning, the Blue Jackets had 24 points, only a tiny step ahead of last-place Chicago (20).
Looks like it’s time to pull the chute and hope to win the Connor Bedard lottery.
▪ Oilers — They have the two highest-scoring forwards in the game, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and yet somehow it looks like they’ll be life and death to reach the playoffs.
The defense — forwards and backliners both — simply has been too porous, and goalie Jack Campbell, hired away over the summer from the Maple Leafs for five years/$25 million, has been the Jack Campbell who muddled along before finding a stride the last two seasons with the Leafs.
If the Oilers can survive, Campbell will need to summon his Leaf inside, and that’s a big ask given how the rest of the crew thinks in terms of stopping goals.
You can’t keep a good team down
Again, we’re only halfway through the season, but some context regarding the Bruins’ mark of 8-0-0 after losses: In the century-plus history of the NHL, there have been only six instances in which clubs went an entire season without recording back-to-back losses.
The most recent occurrence was in 1976-77, when the Canadiens, who went 60-8-12 during the season, went 7-0-1 after losses. They went on in the spring of 1977 to win what was their second of four consecutive Stanley Cup titles.
In 1929-30, the season after winning their first Cup title, the Bruins finished 38-5-1 and followed all five losses with a win.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.