RMU Hockey’s Eric Levine Builds ‘Surreal’ Career as Pro Goalie


PITTSBURGH — Ilya Bryzgalov saved Eric Levine‘s pro career.

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At least that’s the conclusion RMU hockey’s former standout goalie has drawn after coming this close to calling it quits last winter.

But to make sense of how Bryzgalov’s sudden decision to retire gave Levine just the opportunity he was looking for, we have to rewind a bit.

Since graduating from RMU with his psychology degree in 2013, the 26-year-old Levine has dressed for eight pro hockey teams, from the Peoria Rivermen of the Southern Professional Hockey League to the ECHL‘s Utah Grizzlies, where he will start the 2015-16 season with a contract. His itinerant path around the minor leagues seems crazy on first glance, but it’s not all that rare.

“Being a minor-league goalie is, in one word, brutal,” Levine says. “If we’re speaking honestly, goalies that are undrafted and unsigned to an NHL contract, like myself, are extremely replaceable and teams are less than loyal to us.

“It’s a lot of call-ups, a lot of being released, a lot of packing and unpacking your life going from city to city, and a lot of just waiting on the bench for your chance to play.”

Despite not being categorized as an NHL prospect, Levine still found a pretty good situation in Peoria, which is about a three-hour drive from his Chicagoland hometown of Wheeling, Illinois. In his rookie year of 2013-14, Levine had a .912 save percentage in 23 games for the Rivermen, even as he sought chances to play at higher levels than the ‘Single-A’ SPHL.

Over the past two seasons, that ambition led to loan stints with the Allen Americans of the now-defunct Central Hockey League, the Indy Fuel and Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL, and even the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League, the top development league of the NHL.

“There are only two goalies per team,” Levine says. “That leaves guys like me having to fight a lot harder to get a shot at the ECHL level than a forward or defenseman. We don’t get many chances to make our presences felt. The lesson I learned is to take every single game with the mindset that you are playing to earn your next start, your next paycheck.”

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  • Ironically, Levine’s willingness to seize an opening, no matter how small, almost led to the end of his playing career.

    Twice last season, he accepted call-ups to ECHL teams (Alaska and Utah) with promises of playing time, only to ride the pine on both occasions. When he returned to Peoria from his first fruitless gig, the Rivermen released him because they wanted a goalie who would stick around.

    After getting snubbed in Utah a week later, Levine was ready to move on and focus on running the Midwest Goalie School, a company he purchased last summer.

    But, in late February, the Anaheim Ducks announced that Bryzgalov, instead of accepting a demotion to the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, would call it a career after 12 NHL seasons. That meant the Admirals needed to keep the goalie they recently summoned from Utah, leaving a roster spot open out west. Grizzlies head coach Tim Branham called Levine and — after apologizing for not playing him earlier — offered another look.

    “He said I’d get my shot to play,” Levine says. “He followed up on his word.”

    Levine went 3-0 with a .922 save percentage to close the regular season, then did just as well (.923 SV%, 1.92 goals-against average) in the playoffs to earn the chance to start the new season in the ECHL. Between the insight he gains while teaching young goaltenders and his constant search for that extra edge, Levine is confident that his third pro season will be his best.

    “In the offseason you try to make those changes and discover more about your body and what it needs to stay healthy, which, as a goalie, is of the highest importance,” he says. “I like to do a lot of skating and (puck) tracking drills. Ironically, the higher level of hockey I play, the simpler my game needs to be. At my level, it’s about doing the really little, boring details well.”

    Levine noted that his fitness routine includes both strength and flexibility work, with challenging hot yoga sessions aiding in focus and body maintenance. The ubiquitous ‘butterfly’ style has revolutionized goaltending over the past two decades, but it can be devastating to the hips in particular.

    “All these years of butterfly have not been kind to my body,” Levine says. “I was actually starting to get a little worried that I couldn’t maintain the rigors of another season in net, but after doing three months of hot yoga three or four times a week, my body has never felt better.”

    As would be expected from a psychology major, Levine considers the mental side of the game often. A former catcher from his baseball-playing days, Levine said there’s something about being at the center of the action that calms his usually hyperactive mind.

    “As the saying goes, ‘In the crease, there is nowhere to hide, only to escape,'” he says. “When I put the pads on, I become a different person. In my normal day-to-day life, I’m very talkative, sometimes scattered, very on-the-go, always doing or thinking about something.

    “But in the crease, I am overwhelmed with this sense of calm and composure I can’t find anywhere else. I enjoy it so much because of the responsibility the position evokes in you. You are tested on a mental level that is unparalleled in sports.”

    Levine’s comfort in the blue paint was evident throughout his four-year stay at RMU, but especially during his senior year. The 6-foot-3, 180-pounder backstopped the Colonials to a then-program-record 20-win season, putting up a .929 save percentage in 35 games. Two of his 19 wins occurred at the inaugural Three Rivers Classic, where he was named tournament MVP after stopping all 99 shots he faced at CONSOL Energy Center.

    His performance in the championship game is particularly indelible, as he made 51 saves in a 1-0 shutout of No. 5 Miami. To hear Levine tell it, though, he almost had to sit out the tourney because of a stomach bug.

    “I will never forget how terribly sick I was,” he says. “I might have eaten a half-bag of Cheerios that whole weekend. I missed both morning skates because I was home throwing up, and I’m pretty sure (then freshman) Terry Shafer had to tie my skates before the game because I had no strength in my hands to get them as tight as I like.

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  • “But once I stepped on the ice … wow, what an atmosphere. I can still remember being in the crease for our first game against Penn State when (Jeff Jimerson) was singing the anthem. I was so overwhelmed with emotions. It was surreal skating to my net and thinking of all the great NHL goalies who had tended the same net. It was this weird connection I felt with the ‘goalie spirits.’ I don’t even know how to describe it, but I loved every second of it.”

    As it turned out, Levine was able to channel those feelings into two nights of otherworldly goaltending, giving the Colonials a milestone victory in a big-time venue.

    “I looked around the rink and I thought, ‘I will play here one day as an NHL goalie, and this weekend, I will play like I am one,'” Levine says. “Fortunately something in my body listened to my brain. Just to be a part of that last game, to see our entire team battle as hard as they did, I was so happy we won.

    “Having Adam Brace jump into my arms, the entire team rushing off the bench, to be in the middle of all that … that’s something I’ll take to my grave.”

    Levine’s RMU memories aren’t limited to the ice. He served as president of the psychology honor society Psi Chi, taking the lead on some “cool projects” in the department during his junior and senior years. In particular, Levine speaks highly of his former professor and advisor, Dr. Stephen Paul, for helping him expand his worldview.

    “He taught me a lot of things I still think about now,” Levine says. “What it means to be truly open-minded, or why it’s important to not succumb to thought that is based on a prejudice somebody has.”

    Having an open mind can help one embrace the quirks and uncertainties of a career in pro sports, something Levine has learned during two wildly unpredictable years in minor-league hockey. He says his ultimate goal is to work for an NHL team as a goalie coach or professional scout, but in the meantime he’ll continue spreading his knowledge through youth camps and private lessons.

    If hockey doesn’t work out, Levine mentions the possibility of fully embracing his newfound affiinity for yoga and becoming an instructor. Hearing the matter-of-fact way he describes his current profession, some of that Eastern-style serenity has already made an impact.

    “What’s it like being a pro goalie?” Levine quips. “Surreal. Minor-league goalies are like weather in Chicago. Always changing, very unpredictable, and most times nobody likes you.

    “But my God, do I love it.”

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