Back in Sweden preparing for the pressure-packed job of playing goalie for the top team in college hockey, Erik Portillo was at the beach with family one day last summer when he received an email that drew his attention away from the spectacular seascape.
A fellow student at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business contacted Portillo with interest in starting a mobile app that provides an avenue for student-athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness.
The collaboration between Portillo and three Michigan students – Ronit Tiwary, Edward Huang and Cindy Gu – led to their creation of Dualete, a platform that allows youth athletes to register for one-on-one video sessions in which college athletes detail how they excel in a specific sport. Topics of discussion can include mental training, breathing exercises, diet, college recruiting and even sleep.
Portillo, a third-round draft choice of the Sabres in 2019, recently ran pilot sessions with athletes ranging from ages 8 to 21, where he answered questions and detailed his training regimen to become the Wolverines’ starting goaltender. He donated his $2,000 in profits to a mental health organization and a youth hockey organization in Ann Arbor, Mich.
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“It was a great feeling being able to give back like that,” Portillo told The Buffalo News.
Portillo, a 21-year-old sophomore, is thoroughly involved in the venture – which has interest from alumni investors – while handling a rigorous course load and the challenge of playing goal for a team that’s considered one of the best college hockey has ever seen.
On the ice, Portillo has been one of the top goalies in NCAA hockey and his work in the crease has Michigan in the Frozen Four, where it will face the University of Denver at Boston’s TD Garden at 5 p.m. Thursday.
“I think for Erik, he hasn’t shown to me any signs that any expectations or pressures to play behind Michigan's team has been any factor for him,” said Seamus Kotyk, the Sabres’ goaltending development coach. “He believes in himself, as his teammates believe in him. He goes about his season as it’s rightfully earned and he’s the right man for the job. He's very driven and very hungry to show people that he can do this.”
Portillo and Wolverines teammate Owen Power are among four Sabres prospects competing in the Frozen Four. Defenseman Ryan Johnson and center Aaron Huglen with the University of Minnesota face Minnesota State in the other semifinal matchup Thursday night. The semifinal winners play for the national championship at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Four of the top five picks in the NHL draft last July are on the Wolverines’ roster: Power, Matty Beniers, Luke Hughes and Kent Johnson. Their goalie was relatively inexperienced, though.
Portillo is a highly touted prospect who was named the United States Hockey League’s goaltender of the year after a remarkable season with the Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2019-20, but he appeared in only seven games at Michigan as a freshman because he was behind accomplished upperclassman Strauss Mann on the depth chart.
No one inside Michigan's program was concerned. They watched Portillo during practices and he took advantage of his opportunity last season, totaling a .935 save percentage and 4-1 record. He spent his offseason training in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he faced shots from Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, Minnesota Wild winger Kevin Fiala and Detroit Red Wings rookie sensation Lucas Raymond, among other accomplished NHLers.
“I already felt last year that I was ready,” Portillo said. “I was really pushing for that spot last year. And eventually, I got the chance to play and when I got to play, I did well. I've never really been nervous about that or felt like I wasn't able to do it. But obviously, I was working really hard to be as prepared as I possibly could be to excel in my role.
“I want to be that guy. I want to be known as a winner. I want to be the guy who's that best when we need it the most.”
Playing behind a team that deploys a wide-open style that can leave it susceptible to dangerous scoring chances, Portillo has been remarkable during his first full season as a college starter. He has a .926 save percentage, 2.13 goals against average and 31-9-1 record. A perfect 4-0 record and .928 save percentage earned Portillo the honor of Big Ten Tournament MVP, a performance that secured the top seed in the NCAA Tournament for Michigan.
Since Christmas, he has allowed two or fewer goals in 14 of his 21 games, including four shutouts. He's shown improved technique and situational awareness while shouldering the heaviest workload of his career.
Following each game, Kotyk has sent Portillo video breakdowns of specific situations in games to review positive moments and areas that need improvement. There has been gradual improvement in Portillo's technique and situational awareness. The big stage of the Frozen Four is a different challenge altogether, though.
“Going through this with Erik, that’s what I’m watching for and how does he handle this moment and how is he responding in these stressful scenarios,” Kotyk said. “Try to push through these moments and encourage him to rise when your team needs you. I think it’s going to translate to when he needs to take steps with his career. He’s going to have that experience of how he handled a stressful situation or intense moments in the game.”
Portillo has the benefit of practicing against teammates who could have played in the NHL this season, Power included. The immense skill of the Wolverines is a test unlike any Portillo can encounter in a game. And he’s proved up to the challenges away from the rink.
Two days before the Big Ten championship, Portillo was taking two midterm exams in difficult courses. Dualete has also been an early success. He has several requests for one-on-one sessions, an encouraging next step in he and his fellow entrepreneur’s goal to create a business that helps student-athletes profit from their expertise.
“The business school here at the University of Michigan, the Ross School, is one of the best in the country and to manage athletics on top of that is something else,” said Bryan Hogan, Michigan’s goaltending coach who played for the Wolverines from 2007-11. “It’s quite amazing that he can handle both and excel in both. ... His competitiveness and will to win are second to none and that’s what it takes to win these big games. He obviously has all the intangibles and skill in the world."
With fellow Sabres goalie prospect Devon Levi heading back to school for his junior season at Northeastern, Portillo also will face a decision about his future when the Wolverines’ season ends. Kevyn Adams, the Sabres’ general manager, plans to discuss with Portillo the option to turn pro and sign an entry-level contract. But Portillo will have the option to return to Michigan for his junior year, a decision the Sabres would support, Adams told reporters Tuesday.
Portillo said the decision hasn’t crossed his mind yet. His focus is on finishing what he and his teammates started. And regardless of the Frozen Four outcome, he expressed confidence that he’s physically ready for pro hockey.
“I feel great about my game,” Portillo said. “And I think I think I could do it. But right now, all I'm focusing on is winning the national championship here and doing really well with Michigan. We have it so great here. So, either way, I wouldn't mind going back for another year. And I think, right now, I can't keep my mind in a different place. I'm focusing on winning a championship and then I'll have to figure out the rest."