RMU Insider — Levine Building “Surreal” Career As Pro Goalie — Moon Township, Pa. – Ilya Bryzgalov saved Eric Levine’s pro hockey career. At least that’s the conclusion the former Robert Morris University 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-yearold 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 presence 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.” 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
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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
Independence Day Magazine (Sept. 19, 2015)