By Matt Mackinder -
The NHL lockout has in an odd way been a blessing in disguise for the Plymouth Whalers.
After defenseman Austin Levi signed an entry-level contract last spring with the Carolina Hurricanes, he was planning on playing this year in the American Hockey League and angling for a chance to perhaps play in the NHL as quickly as possible.
The lockout means a slew of NHL-caliber players are playing in the minors this season, taking away spots from potential prospects – Levi included.
Just after the Ontario Hockey League season started, the Hurricanes re-assigned Levi to the Whalers, something the 20-year-old said was initially a disappointment.
“Carolina told me I needed one more year of development in juniors and I see it as a win-win situation,” said Levi. “If there was ever a junior team I’d be happy to come back to, it’s here in Plymouth. When I knew what type of team I’d be coming back to with a lot of guys back from last year, the disappointment subsided and I got really excited.”
When asked if the lockout had anything to do with him being back in the OHL for his fifth season, Levi was blunt.
“I’d like to think so,” he said. “The lockout has been tough on everyone. I figured I’d be in Charlotte right now, but that’s not happening. I just hope the NHL gets something done soon and they can get some games in this season. It’s hard to say what will happen, though.”
This past summer, it was hard to digest what happened in a Colorado movie theater in Levi’s hometown of Aurora. On that fateful night, a sick-minded individual opened fire during the opening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing and wounding dozens of people, including children.
“I’ve been to that theater so many times when I was in Colorado until I was 10,” Levi said. “Thankfully, no one I knew was there that night, but nothing like that ever happens in Aurora. I was too little to remember the Columbine shooting (in 1999), but when the Aurora tragedy happened, I called and texted pretty much everyone I knew back home and luckily, they were all OK. Just a very scary time, for sure.”
Back when Plymouth drafted Levi in the sixth round of the 2008 OHL draft out of the Compuware U16s, the Colorado native came into the league knowing he would be scouted on a nightly basis by NHL brass. He improved his overall game and the Hurricanes tabbed him in the third round in 2010.
Now with an NHL contract signed, sealed and delivered, Levi wants just one more item to tack onto his resume.
“This season, I’m playing for a championship,” said Levi. “For (Plymouth captain) Colin MacDonald, Alex Aleardi (another five-year player with previous stops in Kitchener and Belleville) and myself, this is our last year in the league and we want to go out with a championship. We know what it takes and we will continue to do whatever it takes to go as far as we can.”
Currently in a third-place tie in the West Division, but just two points behind first-place Sarnia, the Whalers have been a roller coaster-type team thus far through the first quarter of the season.
“We have not played to our full potential yet and the Plymouth team you have seen so far is not the team you will see in the middle and end of the season,” said Levi. “Moving forward, I know we’ll be changing some things, but you have not yet seen the team we are capable of having.”
If 2008 seems like a long time ago, it was. Levi has spent five of his 20 years on the planet playing in the OHL. In his eyes, he would do it again in a heartbeat.
“The OHL has been a great experience and I have made friends with guys who are in the NHL that I will be friends with for the rest of my life,” said Levi. “And to play for a coach like Mike (Vellucci), it’s easy to see why his teams are so successful each and every year. He knows how to push his players, but to push them the right way. I think I have matured a lot since I was 16 and I owe a lot of that to Mike.”