TORONTO – David Levin knows he is different.
It’s something the 16-yearold Israeli embraces.
Living in Canada, Levin is following the most unlikely of dreams as he pursues a professional ice hockey career.
His journey of more than four years and 9,000 kilometers from his home in Netanya already seems miraculous, but Levin knows it’s not just about him anymore. When he’s on the ice, he’s skating for Israel.
Levin was eight years old when he first caught a glimpse of North American ice hockey.
His father had the television fixed on a game in the National Hockey League, the 30-team league that boasts the best players in the sport from across the world.
“I asked him what he’s watching. He told me that’s the best league in the world, so I told him that’s my dream now,” Levin recalled.
Fast-forward seven years to April 2015, when Levin was selected first overall in the Ontario Hockey League draft by the Sudbury Wolves.
The OHL is one of Canada’s three top development leagues for junior players between the ages of 16 and 20. At 18, players are draft-eligible for the NHL. Last year, 14 percent of NHL-drafted players came from the OHL.
To be picked by the Wolves ahead of every local kid his age is impressive enough, but even more so when you consider that Levin hadn’t even played organized ice hockey until three years earlier.
••• Levin was born into an athletic family. Following a career in professional soccer, which included a stint with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Levin’s father, Pavel, a Latvia-native, opened a youth sports club in Israel. His son played a variety of sports at the club, but roller hockey became his passion.
After seeing the NHL on television, Levin tried ice-skating a handful of times at the Canada Center in Metulla, then the only full-sized ice rink in the country. But it didn’t work, Levin says, and his dream quickly faded.
That all changed a few years later when Levin first saw a YouTube clip of Sidney Crosby, currently considered the best hockey player in the world.
“I knew it was my dream and I want to be the same as him,” Levin said.
By the age of 12, Levin convinced his parents to let him go live in Canada with his aunt and uncle and train to be a professional hockey player.
The move was surprising to his aunt Alla Tovberg and uncle Yafim, who live in the Toronto area.
“I didn’t even believe that he was going to do something because it’s hard,” said Alla.
“Too many people are playing hockey in Canada and few kids are getting even where David is now.”
At 13, Levin enrolled at an independent private high school geared toward high-performance student-athletes.
The first time he went skating on the ice, Levin crashed into the sideboards of the rink because he didn’t know how to stop.
“Guys here, they’re on skates when they were three years old and working everyday on the ice. I didn’t have it, so when I came here, my first couple of days were really hard for me,” said Levin.
If that wasn’t discouraging enough, Levin’s bigger fear was adapting culturally.
“I was more scared of my language, because I didn’t really know how to speak English,” he said. “It was really hard for me, but I went to school and I was reading books.”
When Levin wasn’t in class, he was either on the ice or in the gym. His persistence paid off, and earned him a spot on the Don Mills Flyers, a local team in the highest youth hockey division.
That Levin had such limited experience in organized hockey when drafted first overall by the Wolves speaks volumes of his raw talent, said Sudbury coach David Matsos.
“I think he’s surprised a lot of people including myself and he’s been a wonderful kid to coach, a wonderful teammate.
I’m excited to see how far this kid can really take it,” said Matsos.
“We don’t even know how far he can go. It’s exciting.”
••• Levin said he has adapted well to Canadian culture, although the toughest part has been the climate. Sudbury, located approximately 400 kilometers north of Toronto, averages temperatures of -13 Celsius and -11 Celsius in January and February, respectively.
“I love it. It’s too cold, though. Sudbury is especially too cold,” he quipped.
A two-assist performance by Levin on February 15 brought his point total to 24 through 35 games this year, including seven goals. He has backed up his high draft spot, averaging more points (goals and assists) per game than any of his peers also selected last April.
The intense effort Levin has exerted to adapt to the ice hockey game has paid off.
Three years after he didn’t even know how to stop, his skating looks effortless. He is noticeable on the ice not because he looks out of place, but because he uses his speed and stick to manufacture scoring chances.
Matsos doesn’t pause when asked if Levin has NHL potential.
The answer is a quick “yes.”
“He’s skilled as can be,” said Matsos. “He’s smart as can be and sharp as a knife.”
Levin’s unique ascent has attracted attention among hockey commentators in Canada and the United States.
Some have said that his story has the makings of a Hollywood movie. The suggestion evokes an overwhelmed laugh from Levin.
“I have no words. I don’t know. It’s hard to get it in,” he said. “I can’t believe what I did.”
••• As promising as the career is that may await Levin, it comes with a wrinkle. Like most Israelis, he is supposed to be conscripted to the IDF when he turns 18.
This would take place in September 2017, just nine months before he is eligible for the NHL draft. Three years away from hockey at that age would all but kill his NHL dream, but avoiding army service would mean he couldn’t visit home.
Levin’s agent, Darren Ferris, said he is exploring multiple options to defer Levin’s service.
One of those options is a deferral for “elite athlete” status, granted to very few Israeli athletes.
However, in the past this route has been used to exempt athletes from military service for a limited number of years.
A successful NHL career could span upwards of 15-20 years.
“He has a chance to play in the NHL,” said Ferris. “The toughest thing is to get everyone in Israel to realize, because I know hockey’s not a big thing there. He’s the first kid to be drafted. It would be a shame that a kid would lose the chance to become a professional hockey player.”
Levin says it would mean the world to him to be the first Israeli-born NHL player.
“I’m dreaming about this everyday. I want to show Israel that you can come from nothing to all the way up here,” he noted. “I want everyone to know I’m a kid from Israel and I want to be different.”
Levin says his biggest motivators are his parents, who have supported him every step of the way. While many of his friends back in Netanya may not have understood the dream he was chasing when he left Israel, he says they now cheer him on from afar.
Levin insists he wears Israel on his sleeve with each shift he takes in the OHL.
“The word ‘Israel,’ that’s the biggest thing for me, that’s what motivates me,” explained Levin. “I just want to show everyone who I am. I’m a kid from Israel, I’m not a Canadian.
I want to show them. I want to put Israeli hockey on the map.”