From backyard to the big league: Yukoner Dylan Cozens' long road to the NHL
Whitehorse's Dylan Cozens is set to be the first Yukoner drafted in the NHL's first round
Five years ago, Dylan Cozens was playing rec league hockey against men. He was 12 years old.
Next month he's going to hear his name called at the National Hockey League draft.
This fall he could be playing in the NHL. That's a long way from his hometown, Whitehorse.
"It seems pretty crazy and surreal but I'm just excited to get to it," said Cozens. "I'm just looking forward to that moment so much and being able to represent the Yukon."
This is the kind of hockey story that rarely features a Yukoner.
Only two Yukon-born players have played in the NHL and they weren't selected in the first round.
I hope to make everyone up here proud- Dylan Cozens
Hockey News magazine has Cozens ranked as the top Canadian player available at the draft and projects he will be selected with the third overall pick.
That pick so happens to be held by the team he grew up rooting for, the Chicago Blackhawks.
"I've definitely gone over it (draft) a couple of times," said Cozens, insisting he doesn't care who drafts him. "I try not to think about it too much or else I just stress myself and get nervous."
Cozens is used to making history when it comes to Yukon hockey.
He is already the first Whitehorse-born hockey player to be selected in the first round of the WHL bantam draft.
He's the only Yukoner to be named Western Hockey League rookie of the year.
And no other Yukoner has played for Team Canada and done so as an alternate captain.
"Last year we watched the draft on TV and we're going, 'this could be us next year'," said his dad, Mike. "It's not like I started off with this idea that he was going to be an NHL hockey player, it's just hockey is fun."
🚨 GOAL! <a href="https://twitter.com/Dylan_Cozens?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Dylan_Cozens</a> ties the game with 1 second to go! It's 5-5! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/HlinkaGretzkyCup?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#HlinkaGretzkyCup</a>—@HC_Men
From Whitehorse to one of the world's best
So how does a kid from northern Canada, who grew up in a city with a population just shy of 30,000, become one of the best teenage hockey players on the planet?
If the backyard of his childhood home is any indication, practice, for one.
Dozens of puck marks etch the twelve-foot-high wooden backboard behind the net.
Most of the red paint on the NHL-sized hockey net has been chipped away, the product of Cozens shooting pucks for hundreds of hours.
In another corner of the yard is a pile of broken and tattered hockey nets, the aftermath of Cozen's passion for the game
"This is where I grew up, it's where I played all of my childhood sports, it's where I spent so much of my time," said Cozens. "My dad did such a good job of making it into a hockey rink every winter and spent so much time on it...I owe a lot to him for sure."
For dad Mike, the backyard rink was his own passion project.
"It wasn't work for me. My dad did it for me, it's kind of what I do, I actually enjoy it," said Mike.
"You want your kids to be able to be at home and do as much as they can and I didn't want to have to take them down to a rink, I wanted to put him outside until supper and let him come back."
Dedication and desire
At 14, Dylan made the decision to leave Whitehorse to go play in B.C.
"My family and I made a lot of sacrifices, the biggest one being moving away," said Cozens. "It was definitely really tough on me and my family but we knew that's what we needed to do for me to chase my dreams and goals and I believe that it was the right choice."
Mike tells a story about Dylan, when he was still living in the Yukon, that's another example of his relentless love for the game.
The night before he was to travel to the Canada Winter Games to play for Team Yukon, Dylan was out on the backyard rink at 11 p.m. shooting pucks and skating around.
"We had friends over, the neighbourhood over and kids would just play," said Mike Cozens. "After school, he'd be out as soon as he could, come in for supper, and go back out again."
Cozens comes from an athletic family.
His mother Sue is a competitive runner, racing in dozens of marathons, half-marathons and ultra races.
Uncle Scott played pro hockey and coached former NHLer Tim Hunter.
One grandfather played Junior A hockey and professional baseball, the other varsity cricket and soccer and today at age 90 wins golf competitions against men decades younger.
Even Mike, now 63, is still playing in the same men's hockey league Dylan did when he was 12.
But perhaps the biggest factor playing into Dylan's success today is the place he's from.
Where some might look at the Yukon and see only its remote location and small population, Dylan sees something else.
"There's definitely some pressure that comes from being from here. We don't get too many players that go through this and I hope to make everyone up here proud," said Cozens. "But I like the pressure and I embrace the pressure of it."
Cozens will learn his next hockey destination at the NHL Draft June 21.