Down in the depths of the Budweiser Events Center, in a small workout room which shoots off the main dressing room of the Colorado Eagles, there are six words on a sign posted to a wall.
They read: "This is a performance-based business."
The sign sticks out in the mind of Eric Levine because those words perfectly describe a truth that's been beaten into him over the course of a three-year professional career.
Levine has spent time with 10 different teams over four separate levels of the minor-league hockey world, pushing the 27-year-old goaltender to his very limit on more than one occasion.
"It's been a long journey. It's been a grind. There were a couple times I considered throwing the towel in. You just don't know if it's going to work out," he said. "You have to be in the right place at the right time, and a lot of it is remaining patient. It tests your attitude, your work ethic, your love for the game, because it's hard to love the game when you're not playing for a couple months, you get called up, you get cut. But if you can get through the grind of not wanting to jump off a bridge, then I found that's been pretty successful to me."
Timing and patience appear to have paid off for Levine, who received a call-up to Colorado on Dec. 9 when injuries decimated the Eagles at the position, forcing coach and general manager Chris Stewart to search deep for a suitable replacement.
Levine has done more than an admirable job for the Eagles, playing spectacularly with a 1.15 goals-against average and .957 save percentage in seven games with a 5-2 record. He's posted two shutouts (tied for second-most in the ECHL) and was named goaltender of the week on Dec. 15 following his first three appearances in net.
Yet all of his successes in recent weeks seemed impossible little more than a month ago, and going back one year, Levine nearly gave the dream up all together — more than once.
After playing in 10 games with the Peoria Rivermen (his first professional team in the Southern Professional Hockey League) last year, Levine was brought into the coach's office and he was cut. "I was ready to call it quits," he remembers.
Temporary stints with Fort Wayne (one game) and Indy (three) kept Levine from following through and Utah rang him up toward the end of last season, supplying a solid taste of the ECHL. Levine went 3-1 in five appearances and a 3.03 GAA, including two playoff games. He would start this season with Utah, but surrendered six goals and was promptly cut loose.
"Guys like me (undrafted goalies); there's no guarantee for a next start. I've told myself 'I'm playing to give myself a start next weekend' because I literally don't know if that's going to happen," Levine said. "I played one game in Utah and was cut. There's no loyalty to you, so you're literally playing for your life every weekend."
So from Utah, he ended up in Pensacola of the SPHL, but with just two games played before once more told to hit the streets. The second time in one season. His future looked bleak.
"I was calling every team in the SPHL and no one wanted me. I had nowhere to go," he said. "It's not fun. I knew I was good enough to play at this level, but knowing you're good enough and being able to do it are different things. Some things were out of my control. I wasn't sure if I'd make it through November."
As it turned out, Colorado needed Levine every bit as much as he needed them. The Eagles plucked him out of Louisiana of the SPHL, where Levine posted a 1.53 GAA in two games. Well traveled and hungry, this was an opportunity that needed seizing.
"Guys need either a fresh perspective or need that opportunity with the right people around them and they excel; they make it happen," Stewart said. "That's what we're looking at right now, is a guy who's in a situation that he's taking advantage of."
Eagles forward Darryl Bootland played with Levine in his short stint with Allen in 2013-14, where Bootland remembers the rookie not being able to stop a beach ball.
"He came out for his first skate (in Colorado) and I didn't even recognize him," Bootland said. "He was wider in his net, he was using his arms, using his size and was definitely a hundred times quicker, too. So it was cool to see, and you wonder who his goalie coach is because he improved so much."
Despite so much adversity, the doubt from within and without, Levine is making his case to remain with Colorado the remainder of the season. Ten teams in three years is a ridiculous amount. Finding a home with the Eagles would be a welcome change.
"It's been more satisfying than anything just because for so long I struggled trying to get here and trying to make an impact and it never happened. After a couple of years you start to doubt yourself," Levine said. "It was tough at times, but to come here and get some wins with the team and be a factor; that's been very satisfying. I almost feel like I don't deserve it because it's so amazing. It's better than I thought."
Levine knows his past. It's what helps build his future. But he's learned to live in the moment because every moment could be his last. He can't get the message on that sign out of his head.
This is a performance-based business.
"Your job is so black and white. There's no gray area. Either you make a save or you don't," he said. "As much as you're trying to fight for everything else, your job is to go out and stop the puck. You have to play well. This is a professional sport; it's a business."