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Cozens of Sabres recalls days on dad’s rink ahead of Heritage Classic

March 14th, 2022 by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

Dylan Cozens said when he plays for the Buffalo Sabres against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2022 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario on Sunday (4 p.m. ET; TNT, SN, TVAS, NHL LIVE), it will be the continuation of a Cozens family tradition on outdoor ice.

The forward, now 21, has been skating on an outdoor rink constructed by his dad, Mike, since he was 4 years old in Whitehorse, Yukon.

“There was one in my backyard my whole life,” Cozens said. “So I spent countless hours out there with my friends, staying out there until it was dark, and even staying up late until my dad made me get off to get to sleep because there was school the next day.

“Our backyard rink was the one that was known to be the one where everyone came over to hang out, skate, shoot pucks, and I’m so grateful to my dad for putting in the work so I could have that growing up.”

Cozens’ brothers Connor, 18, and Luke, 15, his mom, Sue Bogle, and his dad will be at the Heritage Classic. He said he’s especially happy his dad will see him play live and witness the spectacle of the weekend.

“I think he’ll enjoy this a lot,” Cozens said. “He loves the game [of hockey] a lot and he loves being outdoors, so the best of both worlds for him.”

After not being able to attend any of Dylan’s games during his rookie NHL season in 2020-21 due to the pandemic, Mike has been able to watch him six times in person this season. As he prepares to watch a seventh game live — and on one of the largest stages — he said it’s given him pause for reflection.

“I think this is really exciting,” Mike said. “I wish my dad (John) was still alive to see this but there are a lot of people, relatives and friends, that do get to see him and for the Yukon, I think it’s pretty cool.”

Part of the reflection has also been about the NHL journey for Dylan, who was selected in the first round (No. 7) by the Sabres in the 2019 NHL Draft.

“It’s just one of those things as parents, when your kids are playing hockey, we’re aware that kids are playing for fun, and we have no idea how good they’re going to be,” Mike said. “Even if they’re really good, you don’t know your kid is going to the NHL. Not something in my world, anyway. You just take it day by day and give opportunities and if they take the opportunity, you give them more opportunity. Then I stand back and look and say, ‘This is crazy.’

“I can’t believe it’s happening, from skating on a little rink at the side of the house and public skating where I used to have [to] bribe him with Smarties to skate around the ice. He didn’t much like public skating because he didn’t have a stick and a puck.”

Mike remembers the day it occurred to him that he could make a rink beside the family’s home in Whitehorse.

“I just wanted to expose the kids to a lot of athletics and one day I was just at the side of the house and looked and thought, ‘No reason I can’t have a rink here,'” he said. “I had a rink growing up as a kid. My dad put a rink in for me. I’m sure I can do this. So I went out in the woods and grabbed some logs and laid them out and found some old tarps and started flooding a rink.”

Mike said he laughs at himself now, recalling some of the obstacles like the gravel base that wasn’t completely tarped and would sometimes poke up through the newly flooded ice.

“So I took a scraper to them and they’d ping through the air and I’m glad I didn’t break anyone’s windows,” he said. “Good thing I had great neighbors.”

When Dylan and his brothers were a little older and shooting harder, Mike figured the narrow, 16-foot-wide rink beside the house should be moved to the backyard so it could be a little bigger with homemade boards added.

“The kids get so much enjoyment with it,” he said. “We have neighborhood rinks but here, they can just throw their skates on, go outside and skate and come right back inside. It made it so much more accessible for them. I just felt like it was the right thing to do. Dylan was relentless once he got on it. He just wanted to be on it as much as he could, and it just never was something I envisioned not doing once I started. I just wanted to keep doing it.”

Just like when he was a kid in Rexdale and Burlington, Ontario, and Beloeil, Quebec, when his dad made rinks at home.

“Now I live in a perfect place to do it,” Mike said.

The added bonus: The skates and minigames on the home ice in Whitehorse are sometimes under the northern lights.

“It can be quite beautiful at night,” he said. “When they do come, they look like they’re right outside the back door. It can be pretty good that way.”

Dylan, who has scored 30 points (12 goals, 18 assists) in 56 games for the Sabres this season, said the Heritage Classic will be his first competitive game on outdoor ice. For an outdoor-game newbie, having grown up in Canada’s north, and with access to his own ice most years from November to April, he’s as prepared as anyone could be.

“I’m just super excited,” Dylan said. “I’m just going to take in the whole experience. I’m pretty lucky to get to play in an outdoor game this early in my career. Just super excited for it, excited to see how the ice feels and how it feels to play outside. I’m hoping I can use my younger days of practicing on an outdoor rink to my best advantage.”

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