A biblical story tells of Abraham’s departure from his birthplace, toward a land that God promises the forefathers will be a home in which their descendants grow and prosper.
Among those who have made aliyah (immigration to Israel) are Pavel and Lena Levin, originating from Latvia and Russia, respectively. Their 16-year-old son, David, fell in love with hockey and, like Abraham, left his homeland four years ago to develop his game in Canada. Through hard work and dedication to his craft, he is pushing toward his own Promised Land—the NHL.
Our conversation begins in Hebrew, and though I can capably order a falafel with my level of fluency, that’s about as far as it goes. We quickly switch to English, which Levin speaks pretty well. He talks about the ride he’s been on for the past four years.
“It’s been really good,” said Levin. “I’m living the dream every day, playing the game every day. Every morning I’ve been waking up with a smile, so it’s been really fun.”
Levin amassed 30 points in 47 games during his rookie season for the Sudbury Wolves. Odds are, there are many more to come.
He’s also well aware of the potential ripple effects of his actions, though for now, he’s just happy to be doing what he loves every day.
“I’ve thought about it for sure, but I’m trying not to think about it a lot,” he said. “I’m going to the rink every morning to just work hard and do my best every day. My time will come.”
Levin represents the pinnacle of Israel Hockey’s efforts and progress since its admission to the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1991. His father, who he stresses was more a coach than anything else, has played an instrumental role in both his development and the country’s.
“My dad, when he moved from Latvia to Israel, he started hockey in Israel, and now he has a big school of about 2,500 kids,” he explained. As for whether or not there are more coming to North America in the near future, he did offer one name to look out for: “Mike Levin, my brother.”
Still, he had only good things to say about Israel Hockey, asserting that the overall talent level is increasing.
Levin grew up playing roller hockey, and though I spent a year living in Israel, the best I could find was a pickup game on a basketball court in Jerusalem. But he insists that these rinks do exist. I’ll believe him, because he’s clearly been practicing somewhere, that’s for darn sure.
It hasn’t always been easy, though. Levin and his family have had to cope with the threat of rockets being fired from Gaza.
“Last summer was the first time I actually saw bombs and heard the sirens,” said Levin. “You have 50 seconds to get to a bomb shelter. It’s really scary when you’re playing hockey outside and all of a sudden you hear the sirens and see rockets flying around.”
As we saw during the Rio Olympics, Israeli athletes haven’t always had the easiest go, and have often been on the receiving end of unsportsmanlike behavior. Unfortunately, David says he isn’t an exception to that.
“It happens on the ice,” he said. “Some guy speaks, but it doesn’t get me down on my game. I know I’m well-liked and I’m there because I’m good enough.”
There have been other difficult adjustments Levin has had to make over these past few years; most notably, moving away from his family. “The hardest part was to leave my family and my friends—everyone back there,” he said. “The first couple of months were hard, but then I started making friends. A lot of people helped me and it got better and better every day.”
There have been a number of Jewish hockey players to lace ‘em up for NHL teams. There’s even been an Israeli NHL draft pick before (Max Birbraer, chosen 67th overall by the New Jersey Devils in 2000).
But Levin is different. He’d be the first Israeli-born player to be picked by an NHL club (Birbraer was born in Kazakhstan) and he’s more talented. He was the top pick in the OHL Draft, and there’s a fair amount of hype surrounding him.
It's very difficult not to feel an immense amount of pride in what Levin has accomplished. This kid has worked his tail off and now has a chance to be the first Israeli to play in the NHL. He is climbing the ladder and, all the while, is representing the Jewish homeland. There's a romantic element to his story.
Levin might be far away from home, but Israel is still very much on his mind.
“Hopefully, I can make it to the NHL and give back to Israel by building more ice rinks and growing hockey there,” he said.