On the ice, David Levin looks like any other teenager pursuing his dream of playing in the National Hockey League. Off the ice, his story is unlike those any of his teammates on the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League.
Many of Levin’s peers learned to skate soon after they were able to walk, and they honed their hockey skills for several years before being scouted by major junior teams in Canada. Levin, though, was raised in Netanya, Israel, where the closest hockey arena was a four-hour drive away in Metula. He played roller hockey and did not play organized ice hockey until he was 13.
But over the next three years, Levin, now 16, would garner enough attention that the Wolves decided to make him the top pick in the OHL priority selection draft held in April.
In going No. 1, Levin joined some elite company who now play in the NHL. Recent first overall picks included John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid.
Levin, a left-handed forward, opened the season with three goals four games. He had five goals and nine assists in 19 games before being sidelined in November with a broken hand. He returned to the Sudbury lineup on Jan. 6 and has a goal and two assists since his return. “He knows where the puck is going to be and he gets there, and he makes plays well in advance of when most players would make decisions with the puck,” said Blaine Smith, the president of the Sudbury Wolves.
Smith added: “He’s got that sixth sense that’s rare to find. I really compare him, skill level and overall package and he’s not a big guy, similar to Gretzky” — Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s career scoring leader. “He’s got those types of attributes.”
While ice hockey in Israel may seem like a mismatch, it was not considered an unusual pastime in Levin’s home. Levin’s father, Pavel, a former professional soccer player, was born in Latvia, and his mother, Lena, is from Russia.
As his roller-hockey skills improved under the guidance of his father, Levin, who is 5 feet 11 inches and 170 pounds, discovered highlights from the NHL on YouTube and began turning his attention to ice hockey.
“I was watching a Sidney Crosby movie about when he was young and how he was working hard every day and getting better — that’s what I wanted to do too,” Levin said, referring to the Pittsburgh Penguins star.
When he was 13, Levin persuaded his parents to allow him to move to the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill to live with an aunt and uncle and play competitive ice hockey.
“It was really hard for my parents, especially for my mom,” Levin said. “The first time I came to them, I was around 10 years old and asked if I could move, but they said not yet because I was young. Then I came to them three years later and asked them, told them I’m a man now, can I do it? They said, ‘Yeah, we can try it.’”
Levin enrolled at the Hill Academy, a private high school focused on student-athletes in Concord, Ontario. Under the tutelage of Lindsay Hofford, the academy’s hockey director, and others, Levin began the transition from roller skates to ice skates.
“I saw him and I go, ‘Oh, my God, this guy just started playing hockey — he’s this good?’” Hofford said. “I really kind of hit it off with him because I respected the fact that he had kind of thrown everything he had on the line to become a hockey player.”
Although Levin had never played organized ice hockey, Hofford could see the raw talent.
“Some of the roller hockey transferred right over to the ice hockey,” Hofford said. “And obviously, he’s a real good athlete: His dad was a professional soccer player, so it’s not like the guy can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. He really picked up the skating quickly.”
In an for Levin to face the best competition, an aunt and uncle, Alla and Yafim Tovberg, relocated from Richmond Hill to Toronto so that Levin could play minor midget hockey with the Don Mills Flyers. Last season Levin led the Flyers, with 39 goals and 41 assists in 55 games.
Levin’s NHL dream is not fueled just by a desire to emulate those he watched on YouTube as a child in Israel.
During a visit to his hometown during the summer of 2014, David and his younger brother Mike were in the middle of a roller hockey lesson with their father when practice was interrupted.
“Wars are going on sometimes in Israel; sometimes it’s on, sometimes it’s off,” Levin said. “When I went back, it actually was on. That was the first time I actually saw bombs flying over my house.”
He added: “It’s an outside rink. We heard the sirens and the bombs. It’s not fun.”
In order for his family to have a better life, he said, his making it to the NHL is a must.
“I’m working out every morning, just thinking where I can improve myself and where I can get better so I can move my family in the future,” Levin said.
Even if Levin were to continue to draw attention from NHL clubs when he is draft-eligible in 2018, he still will have to serve in the Israeli military when he turns 18 in September 2017.
Levin could avoid serving in the military if he were to gain Canadian citizenship before his 18th birthday, or he could apply for one of the small number of temporary exemptions given to elite athletes. Darren Ferris, Levin’s agent, said they were looking “at all options” to obtain a Canadian passport for Levin.
“It’s not a simple process,” Ferris said. “Unfortunately, there’s always a chance that it’s not going to happen in time, and we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there.”
Levin’s story does not yet have a happy ending. “My dream is to make the NHL,” Levin said. “It’s really hard for me because I worked really hard three years, four years, and now I can’t do anything.”