SAINT CATHARINES, Ontario — At age 10, David Levin decided it was time to leave the Land of Canaan for Canada — to become a professional ice hockey player.
At the time, the Israeli boy didn’t know how to skate or speak English and had never experienced a Canadian winter. So back in 2010, his parents brushed off his request, thinking it “just a phase.”
Two years later, Levin persisted.
This time, to his surprise, they relented and let him go live in hockey’s promised land with the then-preposterous goal of becoming the first Israeli-born player in the National Hockey League (NHL).
Today, his aspiration is no longer far-fetched: Levin stands a good chance of being selected in the league’s annual draft of young players in June. Thanks to his innate skill, tenacity, hard work and all-consuming sense of purpose, he’s turned what once seemed a highly-improbable mission into a now credible scenario.
Like Omri Casspi, who in 2009 became the first Israeli to compete in the National Basketball Association (NBA), Levin seeks to break new ground for Israeli athletes by being the first to play in the world’s elite professional hockey league.
“I want my country to actually see that I’ll do whatever it takes to make the NHL, which would be a huge accomplishment for both me and for Israel,” says Levin, 18, who was born and grew up in a small town near Netanya. “I want to show everyone that any kid from whatever country can make it in the NHL if he wants to follow his dreams and do what’s necessary.”
How a nice Israeli boy met hockey
Levin spoke with The Times of Israel a few hours before he and his current team, the Sudbury Wolves, played in a recent Ontario Hockey League (OHL) game against the Niagara Ice Dogs in St. Catharines, a small city that’s a 120 km (75 mile) drive south of Toronto. We spoke in the modest hotel where the Wolves were staying, after arriving earlier in the day on their team bus following a five-hour drive from Sudbury in northern Ontario.
Despite being from Israel, where hockey is, at best, marginal, Levin’s involvement in the sport is less surprising given his family’s background. His mother, Lena, moved to Israel from Russia where hockey is popular. But more importantly, his father, Pavel, immigrated from Lativa where he played recreational hockey and was a professional soccer player.
In Israel, after first playing for the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team, Pavel created a youth sports club and a roller and ice hockey school for which he takes students to Metulla on the border with Lebanon to play at Israel’s best ice hockey facility.
“I went to Metulla a couple of times to try ice hockey,” says Levin, “but I didn’t really like it. I couldn’t skate so I went back to roller hockey.”
Until age 9, he also played soccer, tennis and basketball — but excelled in roller hockey under his father’s guidance. For several years, he played for an Israeli youth team, competing in tournaments in Europe from 2010. Due to his standout ability, coaches representing several countries at the tournament suggested Pavel send his son to Canada to develop his hockey talent on ice. That planted the idea in Levin’s head.
Since then, his hockey odyssey has proven compelling enough to attract considerable media attention in North America in recent years
In a lengthy 2016 profile in The New York Times, Levin spoke of how he was influenced by watching NHL games on TV with his father in Israel, starting at age 7 or 8. He said that’s how he developed a love for the game, supplemented by watching NHL highlights on YouTube.
“I remember seeing a film about Sidney Crosby when he was young and how he worked hard every day on his hockey skills to get better. That’s what I wanted to do, too,” Levin told the reporter, referring to the current Pittsburgh Penguins superstar.
Levin, a left-handed forward, is now in his third year with the Sudbury Wolves. They are one of 20 teams in the OHL, a major junior league closely followed by scouts for NHL teams. After making the playoffs last year, Sudbury is struggling this season, mired in last place in the 10-team Eastern Conference. Likewise, Levin’s offensive output is down from last year, in part due to a major knee injury in late October that caused him to miss 18 games. As of mid-February, he had 12 goals and 13 assists for 25 points.
Cory Stillman, head coach of the Wolves, is a big supporter of Levin.
“Despite how late he began playing hockey, I’m not surprised where David is today,” says Stillman, who played 16 seasons in the NHL. “Great athletes often pick up a sport at a later age. David developed his hands and shot playing roller hockey. Skating came after. The more he works and plays, the better his skating will become. He’s still young and showing improvement. I think he has a good chance of being drafted in June.”
In 2015, following an excellent season (39 goals, 41 assists) in Toronto’s Minor Midget Hockey League, Sudbury chose Levin as the first overall pick in that year’s OHL priority selection draft.
It linked him to some of hockey’s biggest names, such as Connor McDavid, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares, all current NHL stars who previously were first overall picks in the OHL.
“Being the top choice was amazing,” Levin later told a reporter for the NHL website. “It was the best moment of my life. It brought me one step closer to my dream. But after a couple of games, no one really cares anymore. You just have to show on the ice why you went first overall in the draft.”
It was pretty heady stuff for a 15-year-old kid, especially one who only three years earlier had begun a new life in Canada with almost no ice hockey experience, had never worn a full set of hockey equipment and who didn’t even know how to stop on his skates.
Levin arrived in Toronto in the summer of 2012 and stayed with his aunt and uncle, who had previously lived in Israel after moving there from Russia. Weeks later, just shy of his 13th birthday, he enrolled at a private high school that specializes in developing elite sports talent. There, Levin began the transition from roller skates to ice skates under the tutelage of the hockey staff.
“At first, it was really hard for me,” Levin recalls. “I didn’t know any English. I was sitting in class without understanding anything. As for the hockey, I didn’t know how to skate and the first time I went on the ice I crashed into the boards because I didn’t know how to stop.”
Whatever Levin may have lacked then, his determination helped see him through any difficulties. When he wasn’t in class, he was either on the ice or in the gym. In 2014, he earned a spot on a local team in the city’s highest youth hockey division and had a strong season. His parents and brother came from Israel to watch him play in the championship which Levin’s team lost in overtime.
Better late than never
The road to hockey glory is long, arduous and highly competitive. For most professional players, it begins at age 3 or 4 when they start skating, followed a year or two later by playing organized hockey — in places, such as Canada, where the sport is popular and arenas are plentiful. Gifted players also often play for their school teams before being scouted by major junior teams. Only a tiny minority ultimately make it to the NHL.
While Levin may share the same destination with his current teammates, his route for getting there has been radically different from all the rest.
“The biggest challenge for me was leaving my parents, younger brother and best friends behind in Israel,” says Levin. “That was tough and it’s still not easy.”
In Sudbury, home to 160,000 residents, the biggest difficulty for Levin has been the extremely cold winters. Located 415 km northwest of Toronto, the city has a small Jewish community of 250 people (that surprisingly has never reached out to their Israeli hockey phenom).
Levin is the only Jewish player on his team and sole Israeli in the OHL. On a few occasions, opposing players have taunted him about his background.
“There have been a few incidents against me,” Levin says calmly. “Some happened when we were playing in other rinks. Those who made comments about Israel thought they were jokes but I didn’t find them funny because I’m from there and I know what’s happening there and they don’t. But I just have to keep moving forward and not let it bother me. It doesn’t get me down as I know I’m well liked, especially by my teammates.”
When asked to elaborate on what happened, he becomes circumspect.
“It doesn’t really matter the specific comments,” adds Levin. “I prefer not to say the names of the players who said negative things or even identify the teams they’re on.”
Last year, a player from an opposing team was suspended for 10 games after the referee heard what he said to Levin during a game. The player later called Levin to apologize.
As for his own team, made up mostly of Canadians and Americans along with two Russians, Levin insists he’s never heard a negative word from his teammates.
When he dons his equipment and Sudbury Wolves jersey, with “71” emblazoned on the back, Levin feels he’s playing for his team, himself and his country.
“Coincidentally, the main colors of the Sudbury jersey are the Israeli colors of blue and white,” says Levin. “Because that makes me think of Israel, when I’m stepping on the ice, I try to do my best for people in Israel including those who think they can be hockey players too. I want to show everyone they should never give up.”
Unlike other OHL players, Levin has faced the question of his compulsory army service in Israel. In late 2016, he received a temporary deferment from the IDF. His family and agent are working on getting an extended one that’s granted extremely rarely to elite athletes.
Having turned 18 last fall, Levin is keenly aware his friends back home are now serving in the IDF while he’s in Canada playing hockey.
“I love my country, all the people there and that everyone is helping each other,” says Levin, who’s spoken to both the Israeli embassy in Ottawa and the consulate in Toronto about this matter. “Without wanting to sound cocky, not many kids have a talent that would allow them to be the first person from their country to be drafted and possibly play in the NHL. So, people back home have to respect that. It’s going to make Israelis proud.”
Asked what the embassy and consulate told him, Levin answered: “They said, ‘Just worry about hockey for now and get drafted by an NHL team in June and then we’ll go from there.’”
Levin, who at 1.77 m (5’10”) and 77 kilos (170 lbs.) is smaller than most NHL players today, is upbeat about his hockey future.
“I think there are really good chances I’ll be drafted,” he says. “If I keep playing well during the rest of this season, playing hard, I’m optimistic. I really don’t care what team chooses me. It’s my dream to be drafted and play in the NHL.”
Over the NHL’s 100-year history, relatively few Jews and no Israelis have played in the league. In 2000, Max Birbraer, who was born in Kazakhstan and only moved to Israel when he was 14, became the first and only player with Israeli citizenship to be drafted by an NHL team, but never played in a league game.
On ice, in the wolf pack
Following the interview, Levin joined his teammates for the five-minute bus ride from the hotel to the Meridan Centre in St. Catharines. After the pre-game warm-up and the playing of Canada’s national anthem, the Sudbury Wolves faced off against the Niagara Ice Dogs before 4,000 fans.
Throughout the game, playing center and left wing, Levin showed great concentration and poise. Late in the third period, he set up his team’s tying goal on a power play, making a slap-pass to a linemate who scored a few minutes before Niagara won in overtime.
The next day, in an afternoon game in Hamilton, 75 km (46 miles) west of St. Catharines, Levin scored one of Sudbury’s two goals as his team lost 3-2.
This is no ordinary amateur sports team: During the six-month, 68-game regular season, the Wolves play, on average, three games a week. Many involve extended bus rides from Sudbury. The longest trip is eight hours to Flint, Michigan and slightly less to Erie, Pennsylvania. Coupled with almost daily practices, it’s a demanding routine.
Levin’s parents stay up late to watch most games via a live stream on their computer at home in Israel. The next day, Pavel often calls his son to discuss his on-ice performance.
Levin is constantly working on improving his game. He has no choice if he wants to advance.
“Like many players, David needs to work on consistency in his game,” says Coach Stillman. “To become a pro, you need to be good every day, in practices and games.”
In June, Levin’s parents, brother and agent will join him in Dallas for the NHL draft.
So far, scouts from five NHL teams (Pittsburgh, Chicago, New Jersey, Buffalo and Calgary) have interviewed him as part of their evaluation process of possible draftees.
“They ask you all kinds of questions,” says Levin. “Most are about you and your life off the ice. It’s really important for them that you’re a good person. They ask about your family and what kind of guy you are. They also give you questions to answer in writing. If they think you’re selfish and bad with your teammates, you’re done. I think it’s good NHL teams do this because they put a lot of money into everything and they don’t want a player to embarrass them.”
Amid the pressure and spotlight, Levin remains even-keeled and steadfast.
“With his world-class talent and burning desire to be the best, I believe David will be drafted in June,” says Ryan Barnes, his agent since 2015. “He has elite skill and great hockey sense, and is driven to constantly get better.”
If Levin is a pioneer when it comes to Israelis in North American hockey, he’s already inspired others, including his 12-year-old brother who has taken up the sport and hopes to follow in his big brother’s footsteps.
“Two Israeli kids from my dad’s hockey school moved to Canada after me,” says Levin. “There were three Israelis at the school that I attended in Toronto. Two of them have since returned to Israel but one is still there and he hopes to do what I’ve done. That’s his dream.”
Regardless of whether Levin makes the NHL, he’s already demonstrated dreams are worth pursuing, even if, at first, they seem unattainable. No small feat for an 18-year-old far from home.