Devon Levi is ready to go pro with Sabers

BOSTON – To understand Devon Levi, you have to understand why he plays goaltender. The easygoing Montrealer spent the early years of his skating career as a forward before pursuing his passions at the net.

“I have decided to become a goalkeeper. Not because I thought I would play in the NHL, but because I loved it. I just wanted to be a goalie,” Levi said. “I would hope every day that our goalkeeper wouldn’t show up for training or the game so I could get my gear and then put it on and play. So eventually I got a real chance there so I could actually go out and play.”

His father, Laurent, would shoot pucks at his son while taking the crease in street hockey.

“Obviously it was always my dream to play in the NHL, grow up in Montreal and see Carey Price,” Levi said. “I only played because I loved it and to this day I still do.”

Levi has always been a meticulous student of the game, so his former goalkeeping coach Marco Raimondo taught him how to approach the ice rink like the classroom – a perspective he still carries with him today. Levi’s dorm has two giant whiteboards where the Northeast junior plans his weekly sleep schedule alongside habit tracking.

“When hockey got serious, we just sat down and he said, ‘You’ve got to look at these upcoming games like a math test,’ right? When you take a math test, you study during the week, you study the content, you work on it. And then when you go to the test, all you have to do is write the test,” Levi explained. “The easiest part is writing it. So that’s the approach he gave me from a young age, where during training I’ll get my work done all week, I’ll work hard so I have the answers by the weekend. I just have to play.”

With a heavy course load, the computer science major has found a way to combine his studies on and off the ice by using the Sense Arena virtual reality program on an Oculus headset.

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“When I need extra puck touches, when I feel like I want to skate more but I didn’t want to, or I needed to give my body a little rest, this is just an opportunity to feel pucks without physical exhaustion or put on my gear or might not have the ice available,” Levi said. “Everything is very precise. Just like saving gloves. I feel when I’m going to make the save, I feel when I don’t make it, just like I do on the ice.”

When it comes time to turn down the screens and volume, Levi turns to meditation, an exercise he began in quarantine for World Juniors 2020. Exposures forced Team Canada to spend four weeks in isolation and Levi was motivated to flex his mental muscles to gain a competitive edge while stuck in his room.

“In-game play is the same. For example, we have a TV time out instead of figuring out how I’m going to stop the puck, next player, am I thinking about what I’m going to do, or just going too far ahead of me, take a second and breathe and relax and come back to the moment,” Levi said. “Right now there’s nothing I can do to stop the puck or pucks that are being thrown at me in the next game or two games, so I’m just going to sit there and control what I’m controlling in that moment. The only thing I can control is my breath, so I focus on that. And as soon as the puck drops my focus changes from my breath to a game.”

Mike Condon, a former NHL goaltender and Levi’s goalkeeping coach at Northeastern University, emphasizes the importance of mental stamina and control on the net and is impressed by Levi’s breakthrough in this area.

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“It’s very much a muscle and he’s been working on it a lot this year and it’s still work,” Condon said. “You know, it’s hard for anyone to just sit and learn to be calm. It’s very easy for someone to come here and lift weights because there are two different types of training – and the latter sometimes in that aspect is that a lot of people don’t always see it as work, but it takes effort and it takes time and patience and it’s another part of your brain. So he really accepted that, and I think it’s great to just be mindless when the game is playing so your reaction can take over.

Levi could have turned pro last year after winning the Mike Richter Award, National Rookie of the Year, Hockey East Goaltender and Rookie of the Year and being named a Hobey Baker finalist.

“I think the decision to go to Buffalo or Northeastern was a decision that I don’t think I could have made a wrong choice about,” Levi said thoughtfully.

Condon wanted him to come back.

“I look at his career, he’s done so well at all levels and he hasn’t faced any really crazy adversity,” Condon said of being able to pull through that — and we’ve had a little bit of that this year, mid-season , where we had kind of a losing streak, his game he was struggling with and as a coach I really wanted him to go through it so he could find his own solutions to those problems in an environment where it’s a little bit safer than in pro hockey.”

Returning to the NCAA for a second season, Levi led the Huskies to the coveted Beanpot title while becoming tournament MVP himself. But the individual awards mean nothing to him.

“You know, it’s really the wins and the trophies that you get when you do it. And that’s why I play,” Levi said. “And it’s so much more meaningful when you can hold the trophy with a couple of guys. Winning the beanpot was the most amazing thing ever. I threw my gloves for the first time. It was amazing. It was a great experience. And so I became Goalie of the Tournament or whatever, Player of the Tournament whatever it was – but I got the trophy and to be honest I haven’t seen it since they gave it to me. I don’t know what happened to it. I was just so happy to win and hold the bean pot in my hands. That’s why I really do it. And it’s the best thing about hockey.”

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Buffalo is waiting for him now. Levi is expected to join the Sabers once immigration paperwork is completed, completing the first year of his three-year entry-level contract.

“Buffalo has a lot of goalkeeping history and it’s really cool,” Levi said of the organization awaiting his arrival. “It’s cool to see that there are a lot of franchise guys going through the organization and it’s also cool to see that they’re looking for one and my name is on the sign. It’s just such an honor to have the opportunity to potentially be a Ryan Miller.”

The fans will certainly give Levi a warm welcome, but he has plenty of friendly faces waiting for him in the blue and gold dressing room.

“I was pretty close to having surgery in China, you know. Coz, Krebsy, Quinner, they’re awesome,” Levi said of his Team Canada teammates. “I talk to them from time to time. You reach. I grab it. Also when they score a big goal or tell them I’m watching and they’re excited for me to come in and it’s just like they’re great guys. It’s just amazing to have great conversations with them every time, every time we reach out and I look forward to hopefully playing with them.”