A Passion For Stopping Pucks

Hear from the best goaltender in the NCAA about his career, his unique experience, and how he brings himself to perform at such a high level.

By Michael Ruberto

On April 8, 2022, Northeastern’s Devon Levi made history by becoming the second Husky since 2019 to bring the Mike Richter Award, given annually to the top goaltender in NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey, to Huntington Avenue. This crowning achievement enshrined Northeastern as the first school in the nine year history of the award to boast multiple winners. While the Richter may be another feather in the cap of his already impressive young career, Levi remained humble in the wake of his impressive season.

“What means the most is having the guys there with me,” the goaltender explained. “It wasn’t really an individual award. It’s a team award, or at least that’s how I like to see it. The boys helped me so much throughout the year and I wouldn’t be getting it without them.”

For Levi, this remarkable season didn’t just come out of nowhere. It was just the most recent twist on the rollercoaster that has been his hockey life—a rollercoaster which started when he was just four years old.

“My dad played hockey as a teenager and he loved it, and I was the first kid, so he wanted to get me into it also… I remember crying the first few times; I was scared and I did not want to skate. He’s always taught me to never give up, and eventually I got to a point where I just fell in love with it,” Levi recounted, smiling.

Levi credits his father with getting his career started, even if it began on a much different path than many of his peers. While many goaltenders who play at a high level begin refining their crafts from a young age, Levi started out as a forward before ultimately switching into the net around age 12.

“It was really good for me to be able to learn how to skate upfront,” he said. “By the time I was 12, I decided I wanted to be a goalie. I just fell in love with the position. I went to the net every time my dad was just stickhandling in the basement, and I’d throw the pads on and get him to shoot on me… The rest is history.”

Now set in his new position, Levi began to get serious about his hockey career. In the 2014-15 season, he began playing in net for the Lac St-Louis Lions Bantam AAA team, along with fellow future Husky Justin Hryckowian. It was here where Levi first started to see where hockey could lead him.

“You play [bantam hockey] growing up every summer and from there your goal is to play for the Midget AAA Lions; that’s kind of like the NHL,” Levi explained. “As [kids] me and Justin would go watch [Mike] Matheson, [Anthony] Duclair, [Alex] Killorn, and [Jonathan] Drouin, and these are all guys who are playing in the NHL right now. Being able to play for that team—I was 14 and Justin was 15—as two young guys on a team of 17-year-olds was really cool.”

Levi played for the Midget AAA Lions for three years before joining the Carleton Place Canadians of the Central Canada Hockey League for the 2019-20 season. Though choosing to play in this league may have been an unorthodox step, he believed that it would put him in the best position to succeed.

“[Carleton Place] gave me the opportunity to play games, and that was all I needed. It wasn’t the highest level at the time—there were other junior leagues that had better players, better shots, you name it—but I took the time to focus on myself… It was more about playing games and getting better and just developing.”

At the end of his season in Carleton Place, Levi found himself at a crossroads, looking for a new spot where he could continue playing. For many young Canadian players with hopes of reaching the NHL, playing for a team in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is seen as the best option. Meanwhile, the NCAA provided another opportunity for Levi to hone his skills. Ultimately, he once again made the choice that he thought would be most beneficial to his development.

“The NCAA was definitely my first option. I did explore the CHL route… I felt like going there wouldn’t have been the best thing for my development. I was still really small and really young… Coming into college hockey, having four years potentially, you can play until you’re 24 or 25… I get the luxury of choosing when I turn pro rather than having to by age 20 if you go [to the CHL].”

A small town in Ontario, Carleton Place didn’t attract many scouts from colleges or the NHL. But as luck would have it, Levi’s play managed to catch the eye of former Northeastern men’s hockey head coach Jim Madigan. After Levi’s initial commitment to the University of Vermont didn’t work out, Madigan was quick to reach out and recruit the young goalie to join the pack.

But Northeastern wasn’t the only team beginning to take interest in Levi. On October 7, 2020, the Florida Panthers called Levi’s name in Round 7, making him the 212th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.

“I thought I had a chance, right?” Levi said of being drafted. “I was watching the whole draft [from Matthews Arena], watching that TV for eight hours… I’d been told by like 15 teams that they had a lot of interest, and they promised me stuff that didn’t end up pulling through. I was on Zoom with my parents the whole time.”

As the rounds passed by, Levi found himself worrying that he wouldn’t be selected, until finally, the Panthers were on the clock.

“Finally I saw my name on the screen, and it was a great feeling. Like, we made it. We’re here. The dream came true.”

With another major career milestone achieved, Levi was excited to get back to work, but his last minute selection didn’t go unnoticed.

“I was the fifth to last pick of the draft, and looking back on it, it really fires me up because I love that I was picked in the seventh round. Like 20 other goalies were picked before me, and it’s a little bit of a chip on my shoulder to go prove that I’m better than these guys.”

He would soon get a chance to prove himself on a stage bigger than any he’d played on yet, as he was invited to play for Canada in the 2021 World Junior Championships. Despite not being guaranteed the starting job at the tournament, Levi won the net through sheer dominance. En route to a silver medal finish, he posted a tournament record save percentage of 0.964, besting the previous mark of 0.961 set by NHL All-Star and longtime idol Carey Price in 2007.

Levi may not have been a household name before that tournament, but he went in determined to change that.

“I live for that, I love going in somewhere not being known and just letting it out, turning some heads,” the goalie said. “I introduced myself to some of the guys and they were like, ‘Who is this guy? Is this guy trying out?’… So, you know, it was motivating to prove to them like, yeah, I’m here, it’s time to start making a name for myself.”

Of course, this run of dominance didn’t come without sacrifice. Because the World Junior Championships took place during a high point of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone involved was forced to quarantine in a bubble environment for the duration of the tournament. This took a toll on all of the athletes, Levi included.

“You had no contact with anyone outside. You can’t even go get fresh air, you’re just locked inside, so I was taking Vitamin C and Vitamin D pills to keep my bones healthy and compensate for the lack of sunlight.”

Despite these hardships, Levi did his best to maintain a positive outlook, which he felt was vital to his success.

“I saw it as a little sacrifice with something great that could come out of it. When there’s a down, there’s usually an up right after it, and if you work hard through the downs you usually see the rewards after.”

Unfortunately for Levi, the downs did not stop there. During the first round robin game of the tournament, he suffered a stress fracture to one of his ribs which continued to worsen throughout the competition. He tried his best to battle through the pain, but shortly after his return to Northeastern following the tournament, it hit a tipping point.

“By the time I got back, I was actually planning on playing versus Merrimack and making my college debut. It was I think half an hour or an hour before the game and [my rib] just fully broke, and I was like, ‘I can’t play, I can’t even move.’”

Levi would complete his freshman year at the university without having played in a single game for the Huskies. After a long rehab stint and a lot of time away from the game, he was that much more fired up to begin his real rookie season.

“I was really hungry to come in. I hadn’t played last year, I’d missed a lot of time. There were question marks, like, would I be able to perform after I was injured for eight months? I only got two months of skating before the season, so I was hungry.”

Before the season began, Levi was thrown another curveball that would alter his future in the NHL.

“I got four missed calls from Bill Zito who was the [Florida Panthers General Manager] at one in the morning, and I was like, ‘This is so weird, why is he calling me at this time of night?’ I didn’t even put two and two together. I answered the phone and he told me I got traded.”

In a blockbuster trade, the Florida Panthers sent Levi, along with a future draft pick, to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for NHLer Sam Reinhart.

“You know as a player that you can get traded at any time,” Levi explained. “But as a newly drafted player, you don’t think it’s gonna be a few months after the draft. I was pretty shocked, but once I talked to Buffalo I was really happy with where I ended up. They told me that they tried pretty hard to get me in a trade… I think Buffalo’s an amazing fit, and it’s for sure a little motivation to prove Florida wrong.”

Just as he did when he was drafted in the seventh round months prior, Devon Levi was ready to enter the season with another chip on his shoulder. And that wasn’t the only change for him before the season began, as Northeastern would bring in former NHL goaltender Mike Condon—who played for Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Ottawa throughout his career—to serve as the team’s goaltending coach. The pair would very quickly go on to form a strong bond, with Condon becoming a mentor for the young goalie.

“Coaching [Levi] is a lot of fun. He’s very curious. He leaves no stone unturned,” Condon said. “We have a great time out there, we keep it very loose. He’s a good kid, he’s a funny kid. He’s still very young and he has a long way to go, but it’s fun to be with him at this stage and just see the potential that’s there.”

Having played in 129 NHL games himself, Condon knows what it takes for a goaltender to reach that level, and with his help, Levi was on his way to a record breaking season. Levi finished his rookie campaign with a school record 10 shutouts in 32 games played, posting an NCAA leading 0.952 save percentage on the season. These stats were enough to win him Hockey East Rookie of the Year; a top 10 finish for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best player in the NCAA; and of course, the Mike Richter Award. Ever humble, Levi attributes much of this success to the team in front of him.

“It definitely goes back to the guys, they played so well in front of me… blocking shots, battling in front of me every night to make my job easy. I try to give it back to them by pushing them in practice and rubbing some saves in their face. It’s just a lot of friendly competition during practices and then once we play, we’re all united.”

For Condon, Levi’s success comes down to his mindset.

“It’s really just a passion for stopping pucks… He never has a bad day at the rink. He’s unbelievably talented at what he does and there are so many aspects that make him good, but his passion is the thing that drives him to work on every part of his game.”

Levi was a backbone for the Huskies when he was available, only missing significant time when he was invited by Hockey Canada to once again represent his country on the international stage, this time for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

“I just saw on Instagram one day that I was in the running [for the Olympic team], and I had no clue that I was even eligible to go to the Olympics. At the time I was still 19. I thought it was a joke, the Instagram page, but that night I got a call from Hockey Canada saying, ‘We’re interested. We’re gonna keep you in the loop. You’re on the long list right now.’”

Although this wasn’t his first international appearance, the experience was still surreal for Levi.

“It’s always been a dream to put the maple leaf on. Since I was a kid, my first helmet was a Hockey Canada helmet… my dad customized for me. We always watched the World Juniors and the Olympics growing up, and I feel like my dad helped me manifest that just by getting me all this stuff from a young age.”

Levi never got the chance to play in a game at the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean the experience was a waste for him. Just getting to be around professional players taught him a lot about what it takes to be an NHLer, lessons that will hopefully help in the not-too-distant future.

“Just talking to my teammates, a lot of the older guys played in the NHL, like [team captain and former Montreal Canadiens center] Eric Staal, and just talking to him and getting a little mentorship was really cool. Just seeing what went right in his career and what he had to do to help all that.”

Although the Huskies’ season didn’t end the way the team wanted, Levi would be the first to tell you that there’s still a lot of confidence in the locker room, which was a major factor in his decision to delay going pro for another year.

“I know that next year is going to be an unbelievable year. We have a lot of guys coming back and we’re gonna be good. A big part of it also is Mike Condon coming back. Being able to work with him for another year will be tremendously valuable. My decision might not have been the same if he wasn’t coming back.”

Condon has already seen massive strides in Levi’s game, but he still sees even more room for growth.

“[Some of Devon’s biggest strengths] are his decision making and his reads. He reads the game so well in terms of where guys are shooting and where guys wanna pass. You don’t wanna go out there and be guessing… I think him coming back and being able to play a full year without any breaks or interruptions, learning how to really be a starter and really carry a team, is the biggest thing he’ll learn next season.”

As Condon jokes, Levi still has a bit to learn off the ice, too.

“He’s got terrible taste in movies. It’s really disgusting how many movies I’ve seen and he doesn’t know any of them, even the classics. It’s strictly Marvel and comedies, so we’re trying to help him with that.”

With everything he’s already experienced in his blossoming hockey career, and another off-season to train and mature as a goalie, Levi will be ready next season to set the bar even higher and lead his team to glory.