It starts in his room.
Almost every morning when he wakes up, Erik Portillo calls his family back home in Sweden. It’s his morning routine, their bedtime routine — a routine that keeps him constantly connected to loved ones separated by a 4,000 mile, multi-stop journey to Michigan.
The sophomore goaltender and Buffalo Sabres draft pick doesn’t talk much about hockey on those calls, instead discussing the day-to-day happenings of life with the people where his life began.
He’s grown tremendously over the last two seasons, and has been one of Michigan’s most consistent performers on a nightly basis; but his journey to this point is one of constant change.
Portillo’s home town. It’s not only where he grew up, but where he learned his love for competition, his desire to be the best and his affection for being a hockey goalie. Sweden is the place where his foundation was laid.
A strong, elastic foundation designed to embrace change.
Portillo first got into hockey at six years old, when he went to watch his four-year-old brother, Gustav, practice. He liked what he saw.
From that young age, Erik’s competitiveness took center stage.
He wanted to win. Always. Growing up, Gustav played up and was often on Erik’s team. Despite being teammates, Erik always sought the upperhand.
“Can’t let him score,” Erik said. “… Just the competitiveness … it gives you a certain feeling that you can’t get anywhere else.”
In his time training alongside his brother and other teammates, there was something about being goalie that Erik just couldn’t get enough of. Winning drives him, and goalie is where he found he could have the biggest say in making that happen.
“If you play well, the worst outcome is a 0-0 game,” Erik said. “… That’s what I love. I love being able to control the outcome.”
With his size and skill, Erik was a difference maker early on. From his time playing locally in Gothenburg to success in Sweden’s youth national team program, Erik’s potential for a future in hockey was obvious.
What wasn’t so obvious, however, was whether he’d pursue that future.
By the time he was 15, Erik was already a force in the net, excelling in Sweden’s national program. His dad, Andres, recalled a weekend where he drove Erik up to northern Sweden for a four-nation tournament.
The stellar play that was already setting him apart in his young career was on full display in the high-level competition, earning player of the game in two of the three games.
But when he got home from the tournament, he decided that he wanted to quit hockey.
It was a moment that caught Andres by surprise. Erik was stuck in a tug-of-war between school and hockey — as he excelled in both areas — and it felt like too much to handle. After the dominant weekend, he felt like hockey was taking too much of his time, and that he had to abandon it to pursue his passions in school.
“It was one test they had at school where he felt ‘If I could have spent more time (studying), then I would have had an A,’ ” Andres said. “… It was a strange feeling, because as a father you can see when someone is experiencing (a) tough period. … And that was probably the toughest time he had experienced.”
Erik’s team gave him space and time to reflect, telling him to at least take a week away from hockey before making a decision. At home, his family focused on supporting him instead of pushing him one way or another. They encouraged him to have fun, go out with friends and just be a teenager.
After a short time, Erik began to mention hockey again. His final decision came with the help of people Andres connected him with as resources. One of them was Randy Edmonds, who now serves as Erik’s agent. Edmonds outlined a path that can effectively combine two of Erik’s biggest passions — school and hockey — and that path meant playing college hockey.
“That really helped me find the light in the tunnel,” Erik said. “… That was really helpful at that time.”
With the blueprint laid, it was time for Erik to undergo change unlike anything he had experienced before.
In order to play college hockey, he’d have to move to the United States.
And his first stop was in the American heartland.
Erik’s first landing spot in the Unites States; home of the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints. It was a place designed to be a transition year before starting his freshman year at Michigan.
And transitions were aplenty.
When asked about the difficulties of moving to Dubuque, Erik focused on his off-ice challenges — like being away from family and friends. Handling adjustments in taking care of his body off the ice was also a hurdle.
“The food is really different,” Erik said. “… I had a hard time adapting to that at first. But after the first year you kind of realize how you had to eat and what you had to eat and what to look for.”
With the help of his host family, regular video calls back to Sweden and his roommate Reise Gaber — who now plays for North Dakota — Erik adjusted to life in the states.
Despite his sheer talent and skill, being a successful goaltender in the United States posed its own hurdles. The system, philosophy and approach to junior hockey takes a different form to that of Sweden.
“It was a big adjustment (for Erik),” Oliver David, Erik’s head coach in Dubuque, said. “We went pretty hard, we went two-a-days at different times and we did a lot of fitness testing. … I’m sure he was shocked at times. … It’s a different mentality.”
Erik handled the new experience with poise, challenging himself and developing his skills in the process. But a few games in, the differences became apparent.
The playing time was there and he was playing well, but he wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye with the coaching staff on everything. The issues culminated in a misunderstanding between David and Erik that sparked a heart-to-heart conversation over lunch between the two.
“I got mad at him for banging his stick after a loss and making a big scene and kind of ‘acting out’ was my interpretation of it,” David said. “His interpretation of it was, he wants to win all the time. He’s a competitor. He’s a performer. And I saw that after the fact. And we talked about it because I think he was unhappy being (in Dubuque), maybe didn’t want to be there anymore.
“We worked it out and went forward, and that’s also a credit to him. … From there, things went in a really good direction.”
As the season progressed, Erik excelled in Dubuque. David described him as one of their very best, “a performer beyond any performer” and an athlete the team inadvertently built its roster around.
Erik was on a roll when an injury sidelined him, and then the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown that season. With those circumstances, Erik left Dubuque for the Wolverines on a down note.
Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Erik’s current home. A place where he’s applied his experiences handling change to catapult him to new heights. A place where he hopes to lead his team to new heights as well.
Last season, Erik appeared in only seven games, backing up Strauss Mann.
Now, he’s the man.
Erik started every game at net for Michigan this season. He was a finalist for Big Ten goaltender of the year and leads the conference in saves per game. Erik’s recent performance against Notre Dame helped lead the Wolverines to the Big Ten Championship game.
His quick ascent from backup goalie to Big Ten star didn’t happen by accident. It came by embracing the change mentality that led him so far, and challenging himself to make changes in the process.
Those changes became evident midway through his freshman season, at a time where he rarely saw game action.
“He wasn’t ready to play the first half (of his freshman year),” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said on Nov. 11. “He was lazy in practice, didn’t earn any playing time … (But) we knew he was going to be a good goaltender.
“I really believe it was when he came back from Christmas vacation last year. Right from practice he started working harder. … He had to earn (his playing time) and he did. We threw him in (a couple games) and at that point you can see, ‘Ok, he’s pretty good.’”
That momentum carried into his sophomore year, where he turned one of Michigan’s biggest question marks — the goaltender position following the departure of Mann — into one of its most consistent strengths.
With the harder work that brought added confidence and better performance, Erik grew as a leader throughout this season, building off his growth on the practice rink last year. He regularly chirps at teammates, holds them accountable and facilitates communication on the ice. He’s someone everyone around the program admires.
“I think his impact is probably bigger than anyone’s,” sophomore forward Kent Johnson said. “I knew he’s always been a great goalie and this year he’s getting his chance to shine.”
With all his success, it’s easy to overlook the little things that make Erik special. It’s his relationship with the game forged in Sweden. His ability to embrace change in Iowa. Applying that change-oriented mindset to reinvent himself into Michigan’s rock between the pipes.
With his multi-stop journey, Erik has regularly been on the move. His NHL aspirations mean he may have to adjust again soon. It’s something he’s built for, encapsulated both in his journey and the way he plays on the ice.
“A lot of people say wait for the shooter to make the move,” Erik said about handling breakaway attempts. “But I think you can force the shooter to make a move and put him in a worse position.”
At the end of the day, the ice — and the globe — is Erik’s. He doesn’t wait. He’s going to make the first move.
And he’ll be ready for the next one.