09/21/2012 2:27 PM
By: Stuart McComish
HAMILTON, Ont. – Daultan Leveille is returning home to begin his professional hockey career.
Leveille, a native of St. Catharines, recently signed a one-year, two-way, American Hockey League-ECHL contract with the Hamilton Bulldogs and is busy preparing for the Bulldogs’ training camp, which opens September 28th at Brassard, Que.
Leveille, a ‘6”1, 190-pound left-shot centre who turned 22 on August 10th, starred for two seasons with the St. Catharines Falcons of the Golden Horseshoe Junior B League and the Greater Ontario Junior League before embarking on a four-year career at Michigan State University. He overcame the death of his older brother and a serious knee injury during his junior season to produce 26 goals and 43 assists for 69 points in 131 games for the Spartans.
“This is a great thing for me because a lot of people who used to come and see me with the Falcons haven’t seen me play for a few years and now they can come to Hamilton which is only a short drive from St. Catharines,” Leveille said after a recent workout at Copps Coliseum. “I spent the last few years five hours from home and I am looking forward to the chance to play closer to home.”
Leveille became the first player from the GHL to be tabbed in the first round of the National Hockey League Entry Draft when the Atlanta Thrashers made him the 29th overall pick in 2008. He failed to come to terms with the organization, which relocated to Winnipeg for the 2011-2012 season and was rebranded as the Jets, and became an unrestricted free agent on August 15.
“I let my agent deal with the Thrashers, but all the guys who were involved in drafting me were all gone after they cleaned house. I figured they would either cut ties with all the Atlanta guys or they would carry on with them. My biggest concern was getting back to 100 percent and I figured if the Thrashers didn’t want me I could show someone else I was ready to go.
“The Canadiens were really interested in me in my draft year and I really thought I would be going to Montreal. But once things didn’t go well with the Thrashers and then the Jets, my agent reached out to some teams that had been interested in me and Montreal still had that interest.”
With the NHL currently shut down due to a lockout, Leveille knows competition for spots among the Bulldogs’ forward corps will be fierce.
“The way I look at it, I am going to have to beat someone out for a spot. If I play my game I will give myself the best possible chance to earn a spot and I am prepared to do that. I have been training all summer and I am doing all I can to come in and make an impact. I want to show them they made the right decision in bringing me here and I want to make my way up the ladder as quickly as possible.”
In order to prepare for the rigours of a professional season, Leveille spent several months working out under the supervision of former NHLer Gary Roberts before following the fitness program put together by Darren McConaghy, the Bulldogs’ strength and conditioning coordinator.
“I finished with Gary two weeks ago,” said Leveille. “I had been training with him since March. I learned so much from him, about how to live as a pro and eat properly. You can work out all you want, but if you aren’t eating properly all that work won’t help you. I didn’t want to throw away all the good work I had done with him so I got in here to keep going with what Darren gave us. I have been doing a lot of strength training and adding a lot of footwork and agility drills.
“It’ll be a huge jump moving to the pros, but I played against older, stronger guys in college and I have skated in the summer with guys who played at Michigan State and went on to the NHL. They talked about the physical difference in pro hockey, but stressed to me to just focus on playing my game and not get overwhelmed by trying to change too many things.”
Leveille’s collegiate career came to a halt during his junior season when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament, the medial collateral ligament and the meniscus in his left knee in a game at Alaska-Fairbanks on February 19th, 2011.
“I thought I was getting better every year. I thought my junior season had been pretty strong to that point and things were clicking. I was learning more about the game, but then I got injured and that set me back.
“It was a dirty hit. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know how bad it was until the doctor looked at it. My first reaction was, ‘When can I play again? Can I play in the playoffs?’, but I was told I was done for a year. To hear that was pretty upsetting and after the surgery I really pushed myself to get back. I played some games in my last season, but I knew I wasn’t 100 percent.”
While rehabilitating his knee Leveille got some encouragement from two other athletes who had suffered similar injuries, longtime NHL defenceman Chris Chelios and onetime Michigan State running back Javon Ringer, who now plays for the Tennessee Titans of the National Football League.
“I thought I would never be the same player,” said Leveille. “My skating has always been my biggest asset and I wondered how that would be affected. At one of the last games of the season I sat with Chelios, whose two sons were on the team, and talked to him. He told me he had a similar injury and played many years in the NHL after that and to hear a guy like him, who had the career he had, tell me that was great.
“I bumped into Javon in the gym one day and had no idea he had a knee injury similar to mine and ended up in the NFL. It made me feel a lot better knowing I could come all the way back. So instead of wallowing about my luck I focused on how quickly I could get back.”
Leveille also credited Roberts, who played 11 NHL seasons after missing a season due to a serious neck injury, with accelerating his return.
“He’s been through the injury thing too and he really helped me get my knee stronger and to help me get the quickness and power back. My skating coach, who I have been with my entire career, said she couldn’t tell any difference in my skating.”
A few weeks before injuring his knee Leveille dealt with the loss of his brother Clayton, who passed away on January 16th from a rare blood disorder contracted during a vacation in Mexico.
“We thought it was just one of things you might pick up in Mexico, but it just kept getting worse. He ended up in hospital in the Miami area and I went down and stayed with him. Eventually he came back to a hospital at home and he was in and out. He was fluctuating, nobody had any idea what was going on. He’d be good one week, bad the next week. I remember sitting with him and he told me he wanted me to get back to school and keep playing hockey.
“He was always my biggest fan and I dedicated my junior season to him. We were very close, he was a year older than me and we did everything together. Even if he took a turn for the worse he didn’t want me missing games to come home. Even after he passed away I was back in the lineup, I didn’t miss any games. There was nothing more that he wanted than for me to play pro hockey and he was the biggest Canadiens fan you’d ever meet. I laughed when I signed with the Bulldogs about how things all worked out.”
Leveille came to the attention of NHL scouts in 2007-2008, his second season with the Falcons, when he scored 29 goals and added 27 assists for 56 points in 45 games. He contributed 14 goals and 30 points in 16 playoff matches and went into the draft ranked 47th among North American-based skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
“That whole season was a complete whirlwind. I remember sitting down before the season started and wondering whether I would be able to get a Division I scholarship. But then the season started and I got on the NHL draft list and even that was a huge honour for me. I was ecstatic to think there was a chance I might be chosen at some point and then as that season went on it became more of a possibility that I would go a bit higher.”
Leveille’s NHL draft class was one of the strongest in recent years and he said he is out to prove he belongs with his fellow first rounders, a group that includes such established NHL stars such as Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty.
“It’s a real motivator. I want to be just as good as all those guys I was drafted with. They may be where they are in their pro careers, but even though I have had some setbacks I can get started now and show people I do belong with that group.
“I never played on great teams in the winter, but the summer was when I got to play against guys Stamkos, John Tavares, Michael Del Zotto and Alex Pietrangelo. Every weekend it was a tournament against guys like that and I really pushed myself then because I knew those were the guys I would be competing with. I watched a guy like Stamkos work out with Roberts every day and I figure if a guy who is one of the elite players in the world is going to put in that kind of effort I need to work twice as hard.
“There have been a lot of distractions, for lack of a better word, over the past two years and I think I am past that. It’s a fresh start with a new organization and I am going to make the best of this. I have put in a lot of work and I am ready to go.”