Dylan Cozens steps onto the ice this week at the Westerner Park Centrium with one goal in mind – repeating as a gold medalist at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships.
Forty-seven players have arrived in Red Deer with a similar goal, simply hoping to represent Canada at junior hockey’s premier event next month.
Half the tournament was originally slated to be played in Red Deer, before the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled those plans. Red Deer is now expected to play host to half the 2021 world junior tournament.
Hockey Canada extended an olive branch to the city this time around, by bringing its month-long selection camp to central Alberta.
“It’s like nothing we’ve ever experienced before. But it’s going to bring us closer together, and it was nice to get on the ice, take your mask off and breathe for a bit,” Cozens said with a chuckle Wednesday.
“It’s going to be something different. We’re here really early, lots of time to gel and become close with each other. It’s going to be good for us in the long run. Hopefully, we can defend home ice and win gold again.”
A Buffalo Sabres seventh overall pick in 2019, Cozens is familiar with the ice in Red Deer, where the team will be situated for the 24 days before they move to the Edmonton bubble for the tournament.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes, a central division rival of the Red Deer Rebels, have made a habit over the past three years of making life difficult when they come to town.
In 10 trips to the Centrium over his WHL career, Cozens and the Hurricanes have won eight times, with the Whitehorse, Yukon, product recording 15 points over that span.
As one of just six returning players, Cozens is now expected to lead Canada. He’s ready to embrace that role.
“Coming back, I want to be a leader on this team, a guy that they can look up to and come to if they need help or anything. I just want to lead by example, and doing things professionally and giving it my all and doing whatever it takes to win,” he said.
On the ice, Cozens said through the first practice, it was competitive, and he expects the pace to pick up as the players settle into the routine.
“It was intense, they worked us hard – it was the first real competitive skate a lot of guys have had in a while… it was good to get out there, have some fun and compete with intensity again,” he said.
Another Canadian hopeful familiar with the Centrium ice is Ontario native Shane Wright.
The 16-year-old phenom, who earned exceptional status into the Ontario Hockey League, was everything as advertised in his first season with the Kingston Frontenacs.
He put up 39 goals and 27 assists in the league over 58 games last year.
But before all that, Wright had a coming-out party at the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer with Team Ontario.
Although Wright and Ontario lost out on gold in a heartbreaking overtime loss to Team Quebec, the six-foot, 183-pound centre did everything he could to help his squad.
Wright had six goals and six assists in 12 games at the tournament during the silver medal effort for Ontario.
Even though underage players don’t typically make Canada’s under-20 roster, Wright is hoping he’s an exception once again.
“I’m used to being the youngest guy on the team. I know I’m here for a reason, and I know I’m here because I’m good enough to make this team. I wasn’t too nervous walking in, excitement mostly,” he said.
Canada will practice at the Centrium throughout the week, before holding a trio of intra-squad games that will be televised live on TSN.
Games will be aired at 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, before a noon start on Nov. 24.
Later in the month, Canada will also play a trio of games against Canadian university squads.