Daultan Leveille’s dream of playing in the National Hockey League took him across North America and into Europe before he finally decided enough was enough.
The 28-year-old St. Catharines native was playing for the St. Catharines Falcons when he was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the first round, 29th overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, becoming the first player in NHL history to be drafted out of a junior B league.
What followed was a decade of injuries, frustration, politics and finally the realization that playing in the NHL wasn’t meant to be.
Leveille, who went to Michigan State after being drafted, never signed a pro contract with the Thrashers, who moved to Winnipeg three seasons later.
“If I was drafted by any other team other than a team that was moving, chances are I sign and play,” Leveille reflected. “You can’t control that. Everything happened the way it did.”
Leveille injured his knee in his junior year at Michigan and spent the next season rehabbing it. He was not offered a contract and turned pro when he signed with the Montreal Canadians organization, splitting time between the American Hockey League and ECHL.
That’s where he first noticed the politics of pro hockey.
“I’m sure there are a million guys this has happened to. Guys you never think will make it and other guys who you think will make it and don’t,” he said. “I played with so many guys who I thought 100 per cent could have played in the NHL, but they never got their opportunity.
“It just takes that one coach or GM to like you and then once you’re there you bounce around and get your opportunities.”
After a couple of more seasons in the low minors, the smooth-skating forward decided to give Europe a try and loved his season playing in France.
“In Europe, they play their best guys,” he said. “It was such a refreshing year. I could just go out and play. I enjoyed playing hockey again when I was there. If I had to do it over again, I would have spent more time in Europe.It was great hockey, more offensive and wide open. As a skater, you could have an amazing career over there.”
Leveille returned to North America, signing a deal with the Ottawa Senators organization, and had a strong season in the ECHL with the Evansville IceMen.
It was there an assistant coach sat down with him and laid it on the line.
“One of the coaches basically told me it doesn’t matter how well you play, if you get stuck behind certain contracts, you’re not going to get the call,” he said. “I was playing well enough but when you’re stuck in that kind of game, it’s difficult.”
Leveille did get a cup of coffee in the AHL with the Binghamton Senators that season, scoring a goal and an assist in five games, but he could see the handwriting on the wall.
He bounced around with three teams in the ECHL the next season but then injured his knee again.
“After my last injury where I injured my knee again that was kind of eye opening,” he said. “The doctor said if you do it again you risk never putting on skates and skating with your kids.
“It was the same knee three times and the arthritis would get so bad. I tore up everything in there.”
At that point, Leveille decided it was time to think about life after hockey.
“That last year was a transition period. I told my wife as soon as I didn’t love to go to the rink, that is when I was going to start (to think about quitting),” he said. “Do I keep grinding it out? I got to a point where I was frustrated.”
Leveille had a degree from Michigan to fall back on, which eased his mind.
“If I had no education or no prospects, maybe then I would have kept grinding it out and hoping it works out and make the money that way,” he said. “My wife (Hilary) was more than generous to follow me around for numerous years. She got a good job back here and I couldn’t pull here away from a great career opportunity. That was my pivotal moment.”
Leveille did home homework and learned about a program with the Professional Hockey Players Association who have an affiliation with a firefighting facility in Mississauga.
“It’s to help guys find their way after sport,” he said. “I found the biggest thing was I missed was the guys, the locker room and the team atmosphere. Firefighting is one of the only places you can get that relationship and lifestyle so it was an amazing transition.”
Leveille joined St. Catharines Fire and Emergency Services four months ago and couldn’t be happier.
“I can go to work every single day and love what I am doing, a lot of people can’t say that. It’s refreshing because there were days when I went to the rink annoyed and frustrated and now I don’t have that.”
Leveille also has much bigger plans in the works.
He about six months away from completing his Master’s degree in counselling and also plans to work toward a doctorate in mental health. He would love to work with firefighters with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and keep his hand in hockey working with players with post-concussion syndrome.
“I’d like to get involved with hockey on the medical side of the sport because I do miss it.”
Leveille has also committed to helping Chris Lukey as an assistant with the Welland Junior Canadians this season.
“I had a lot of help with the Falcons with different people helping and guiding me. I was naive. I had no idea about the world of pro hockey,” he said. “I’d like to get those kids in Welland who want to go the NCAA route. Work with them for a year or two to help them get there and be that advisor. I’ve been through those things and lived the hard part of it. You learn the hard way.”
While his dream of making the NHL didn’t pan out, Leveille isn’t the least bit bitter.
“I can honestly say I have no regrets in the whole process. Sometimes the deck is stacked against you,” he said. “You can’t sit here and regret everything. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position that people would be dying to have what I have now.
“All that matters is if you’re healthy and you have your family and if you have that, you really can’t complain.”