Imagine this: an 8-year-old boy playing hockey at his local roller rink with his dad, dreaming of someday playing in the NHL and winning the Stanley Cup. It's a fairly common sight in a hockey-crazed country like Canada.
Now, imagine that boy is from Israel.
NHL dreams are no figment of imagination for forward David Levin, a top prospect for the 2018 NHL Draft. And the gravity and impact of potentially being the first Israel-born NHL player is not lost on him.
"A lot goes through my head," Levin told NHL.com. "Israel will be a lot bigger in hockey when that happens. I think about it every day, how my family and friends are going to be happy for me. I'm just trying to work hard every day, do my best and see what happens."
Levin, 16, plays for Sudbury in the Ontario Hockey League, but his improbable hockey journey began at a small roller rink in Netanya, Israel, a short drive up the Mediterranean coast from Tel Aviv.
Levin's father, Pavel, coached an inline hockey team at the rink and started training David, then 4 years old, on rollerblades. Four years later he was playing on his father's team. At one point he made the trek to one of the two ice rinks in Israel to give the game a shot on ice skates. It didn't go well, so he gave it up and stuck to roller hockey.
However, as more and more inline scouts told him he had a shot to play elite-level ice hockey, Levin knew he couldn't stay in Israel. He told his parents he wanted to live with his aunt and uncle in Canada.
"I told my mom first, and she didn't want to let me go because she was really scared. But I had a meeting with my parents and told them I wanted to make my dream come true," Levin said. "I want to go to Canada, the best country in the sport. Hockey is my life, and every morning I'm waking up and going to the rink and that makes me happy. I just want to play every day."
At the age of 12, moving to a completely new country, without knowing the language or culture, was daunting. Levin also had a hard time adjusting to a relatively new concept: cold weather.
"It gets really cold [in Canada]," he said. "Colder than Israel, and it snows a lot."
On the ice, Levin had a lot of work to do. Unfamiliar with playing hockey on ice, he didn't know what sharpening skates was, or how to stop on ice skates. After training hard and adjusting to playing on ice instead of asphalt, Levin joined the Don Mills Flyers minor midget team in 2014-15 and had 80 points (39 goals, 41 assists) in 55 games. That play led to Sudbury selecting him with the first pick of the 2015 OHL Draft.
While that was an honor for Levin, he said it was just another stepping stone in his journey to the NHL.
"It was amazing," he said. "That was the best moment of my life. I'm one step closer to my dream. But after a couple games, no one cares anymore where you went. You just have to show on the ice why you went first overall."
Sudbury coach David Matsos said he and his staff saw limitless potential in Levin (5-foot-10, 167 pounds) when they selected him.
"You can teach a lot of things," Matsos said. "You can teach kids how to skate better, put weight on and do those sorts of things in the weight room. But you can't teach hockey sense. This guy thinks at a different level.
"He is probably one of the most elite, skilled players that I've seen."
Matsos recalled a shootout practice when Levin consistently scored through the goaltender's legs moving left to right, instead of picking the corners and making finesse moves like the other players. When Matsos asked him about it, Levin said he noticed the goaltender's subtle movements across his crease and found the perfect timing to beat him with a simple five-hole shot.
"I thought, 'Wow, this guy thinks on a different level than most people,'" Matsos said. "Most guys come on and their shot is premeditated and they don't have many moves. He is breaking the goalie down to find out where the holes were."
Levin credits his father for his hockey smarts, and the time they spent together at the roller rink practicing and talking about the game. It was coach Levin, not Dad, who shaped David into the hockey player he is today.
He had nine goals and 21 assists in 47 games for Sudbury last season, and scouts are starting to pay attention for the 2018 NHL Draft. Matt Ryan of NHL Central Scouting said Levin's hockey IQ is his biggest strength.
"He's got an excellent feel for the game," Ryan said. "His ability to create time and space for himself and for his linemates to have success. I think that's his greatest attribute, his ability to read the game and make plays at high speeds."
Sudbury defenseman Reagan O'Grady, who mentored Levin as he transitioned to life as an OHL player, said Levin's elite skills are that much more impressive considering the journey he has made.
"I'll never forget a play where he came off the bench in the middle of the ice and the puck came to his skates, and he turned around and did a 360, stepped on the puck and put it on a teammate's stick," O'Grady said. "It's something that's unheard of, coming from an Israeli kid who drove an hour to get to his rink and skated by himself."
As if playing a sport at an elite level in a foreign country weren't stressful enough, Levin also had to deal with his obligations to the Israeli Defense Forces. All male citizens of Israel are required to serve in the IDF for three years, and if Levin had to serve, he would have had to enter training prior to turning 18, putting his NHL dreams in serious doubt.
In July he got a deferment on his military obligations at least until he's eligible for the draft in 2018. That means he can keep focusing on hockey until his status is re-evaluated when he turns 18. The news was a relief to Levin, but he knows the saga isn't over yet. He hopes to continue working and prove to the IDF he deserves to stay in Canada.
As for a favorite NHL team, Levin said he doesn't have one. But he loves watching Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He hopes to someday step on the ice with them.
Even though Levin has been living in Canada for a few years now, he thinks of his home country. When he laces up the skates and puts on the Sudbury jersey, he's playing for his team, himself, his homeland and for anyone in Israel who has NHL dreams.
"The Sudbury jersey is made with the Israeli colors, blue and white," he said. "That makes me think of Israel every time I see it, so I'm stepping on the ice to try and do my best for people in Israel and for those that think they can be hockey players too. I want to show everyone that they should never give up.
"It doesn't matter where you're from."