Yukon product Dylan Cozens blazing a trail and set to make history at NHL draft

Dylan Cozens wants to clear up a couple misconceptions about Whitehorse.

Yukon’s capital has real houses — not igloos — and working electricity.

They even have, wait for it, wireless internet.

“Lots of people don’t know what it’s like up there,” the 18-year-old said with a laugh. ”It’s just a normal place.

“A normal little town.”

What isn’t normal is a hockey player from north of the 60th parallel getting to where Cozens finds himself.

The six-foot-three Lethbridge Hurricanes centre stands as the fifth-ranked North American skater according to NHL Central Scouting heading into the upcoming draft in Vancouver, and is set to become the first player ever selected out of the territory.

“It always did seem far away,” Cozens said over the weekend at the league’s scouting combine in Buffalo, N.Y. ”It just seemed like a dream and not really a reality. I always wanted to make it come true and I wanted to be that guy that came from a remote place and had a cool story.

“It’s getting closer.”

Cozens learned hockey on his family’s backyard rink that would often stay frozen from November to March. He had the freedom to try different things and make mistakes, falling in love with the game at an age when many players down south are already getting drilled on systems.

“When you’re young like that, you’ve just got to go out and play,” Cozens said. ”You’ve got to enjoy it and have fun. You can’t have too much pressure on you when you’re 12, 13 years old.”

Martin Lawrie, who coached Cozens (pronounced ‘cousins’) at various youth levels, said that while the passion was evident, Cozens didn’t dominate early on.

“He was a funny little skater,” Lawrie recalled. ”The one thing that stood out for him was his compete level. It was off the charts.

“From Day 1, he hated to lose and loved to score.”

By the time Cozens was 12, the best competition he could find in Whitehorse — population roughly 25,000 — was in men’s recreational leagues, but he would wind up breaking his leg against players more than twice his age and double his size.

The injury forced his family into a difficult choice.

“We’re like, ‘This isn’t real hockey. We’ve got to get out of here,’” Cozens said. ”I want to play in the NHL, and it’s not going to happen if I stay up here much longer.

“It was beer league.”

So he packed his things at 14 and headed south to join a hockey school in the Vancouver suburb of Delta, billeting with a family he didn’t know thousands of kilometres from home.

“It was a tough decision,” Cozens said. ”But we knew that’s what I needed to chase my dreams and goals.”

Former NHLer Jaroslav (Yogi) Svejkovsky, who was already familiar with Cozens from tournaments and the spring season, coached him at Delta Hockey Academy.

“He came here with very little structure,” Svejkovsky said. ”We tried to give him some tools to become a really good player within a structure.

“One of the big things for Dylan was trusting the other players that he would get the puck back. It took him a little while to understand that if he just did his own job he’d be successful.”

The son of a judge and lawyer, Cozens would move onto Yale Hockey Academy in Abbotsford, B.C., the following season after getting cut from his adopted province’s under-16 program.

Yukon didn’t have a team, but that disappointment shot him out of a cannon.

“He just flourished,” said Brad Bowen, who coached Cozens in Abbotsford. ”He went from a kid driven to be the best he could be to a kid that wanted to prove everybody wrong.”

Having already been selected 19th overall by the Hurricanes in the Western Hockey League draft, Cozens joined the junior club late in the 2016-17 schedule, put up 53 points last season and exploded for 34 goals and 50 assists in 2018-19.

“He wasn’t on the radar as far as being a top prospect out of bantam,” Lethbridge general manager Peter Anholt said. ”We were really fortunate to get him. He wants to succeed, he wants to be the best. He just loves to play the game.

“He’s a shoot-first player. He can score, and his skating and his speed is exceptional.”

Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of central scouting, agreed with that assessment of Cozens, who’s focused on bulking up from his 180 pounds this summer.

“He’s a young man who’s still growing into his frame,” Marr said. “When he’s on the ice, he finds a way to generate and create a scoring chance. “

Cozens is just one of a number of talented centres — Jack Hughes, Kirby Dach, Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras are the others — set to be plucked off the draft board early on June 21 at Rogers Arena.

Lawrie said the path Cozens cut for himself will give hockey players in northern communities a boost.

“It’s definitely inspirational and brings that possibility closer to home,” he said. ”You see something similar through a lot of First Nations players, and you can attribute a bit of that to the success of Jordin Tootoo.

“Dylan will just continue that for kids north of the 60th.”

Only two players from Yukon have ever stepped onto NHL ice. Peter Sturgeon and Bryon Baltimore suited up for eight total games, although the latter, now an agent, played 331 times in the World Hockey Association.

“It’s great for everybody in those northern places, remote places, to know there’s kids like Dylan,” Svejkovsky said. ”He’s following his dream.”

Cozens is focused on the draft and rookie camp, but he’s also acutely aware of the trail he’s blazing.

“There’s not too many people that make it all the way from there,” he said. ”I’m proud to represent.”

If he has a successful career, maybe there will be fewer questions about igloos.

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