Tyler Bozak made tracks on school 11 ½ months ago to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But even though his days at the University of Denver are in the rearview mirror, his education has continued in the AHL and NHL this season.
The rookie Maple Leafs centre, who turns 24 on Friday, has proven to be a swift learner. Bozak and sniper Phil Kessel, along with Nikolai Kulemin, have enjoyed immediate chemistry. Bozak has scored six goals and 18 points in his first 24 NHL games.
His late-season success has raised the matter of whether the youngster should have started the season with the Leafs. After all, he did turn heads in training camp and didn’t look out of place in preseason games with the Maple Leafs.
Bozak, however, believes that starting the season with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL was the right move in hindsight, even though he endured a troublesome ankle sprain and a bout with the H1N1 flu virus with the Marlies.
"Yeah, at the time you’re not happy about it, it’s not the spot you want to be because your goal is to be here," Bozak said. "It was good for experience. I learned a lot about the professional game, and just the amount of rest and the right food you need to eat just to play this hefty schedule.
"It’s been quite a roller-coaster ride for me this year. I couldn’t be any happier now, [I], just want to stay healthy and get better every game."
Health was a problem for the native of Regina last season. He suffered a serious knee injury that limited his season to 19 games. Although, he returned in time for one final U.S. college outing before he signed with the Leafs, Toronto general manager Brian Burke and the team’s medical staff decided it was best for Bozak to sit out the remainder of the season to fully recover.
In the summer, Bozak and fellow college-players-turned-pro, Viktor Stalberg and Christian Hanson, decided to stick around Toronto and train together. They shared a west-end apartment and became accustomed to life in the big city.
"There was no pressure from the Leafs to do this," Bozak said. "This was something the three of us wanted to do. We decided we could get a place together, save some money, push each other and get to know each other and train together."
The three come from different backgrounds. Bozak and Hanson, of Venetia, Pa., were signed as free agents last spring after Bozak spent two years in school in Denver and Hanson had three years at Notre Dame. Stalberg, of Gothenburg, Sweden, was selected in the sixth round of the 2006 NHL draft and decided to leave school after his third year at Vermont.
Bozak was raised in a hockey family. His father, Mitch, played at the University of Saskatchewan and coached his son all the way up to midget. One of the areas the elder Bozak stressed was the importance of being a good face-off man. The rookie has a 56 per cent success rate with the Leafs, which is tops on the team.
"We had a little rink in our backyard," Bozak said. "[My Dad] was big on face-offs, he knew it’s a big thing in the game, it was always something he wanted me to work on.
"We did it in the backyard rink. He dropped pucks for me and taught me little things because he was a centreman, too.
"He really didn’t have to keep us out there. Me and my brother would stay out there as late as we could, until my Mom made us come in. We were out there a long time.
I just wanted to shoot around and play games, but [Dad] made me focus on other aspects as well."
Bozak called his father a smart hockey man, and that’s one of the attributes that Bozak also possesses and has demonstrated as a pro.
"I feel great, every game you play the more confidence you get," Bozak said. "Just playing with these guys, we’re making plays and things are going in right now so it really helps your confidence. I think with confidence comes a lot of patience out there trying to make plays you were a little nervous about before."