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N.H.L. Draft Pick Inspires Dreams as Big as the Yukon

January 16th, 2020 by By Gerald NarcisoPhotographs by Ricardo Nagaoka

WHITEHORSE, Yukon Territory — Canada’s largest city north of the 60th parallel, about 30,000 residents strong, sits between the emerald blue Yukon River and the evergreen-flecked hills on Whitehorse’s eastern and southern edges.

At the top of Two Mile Hill Road, just past the Alaska Highway, dozens of young hockey players — some wearing new Buffalo Sabres hats — came in and out of the Canada Games Centre, a multipurpose sports facility, for the first day of tryouts for the Whitehorse Mustangs club teams. Not far from the players’ minds, or, for that matter, their parents’, was the legend of Dylan Cozens.

Months before, on June 21, Cozens, 18, a Whitehorse native, became the first player from the area to be selected in the first round of the N.H.L. draft, taken by the Sabres with the seventh pick.

In the hours after the N.H.L. draft, the Whitehorse outpost of the Canadian retailer Sports Experts, situated on the town’s sleepy Main Street, scrambled to import Sabres product. “Just being in the north, it’s tough to get stuff shipped in,” Matthew Hitchcock, the store manager, said. “We tend to get the slim pickings.” When the shipment finally arrived, the generic assortment of Buffalo caps, T-shirts and nameless jerseys flew off the shelves.

Because of Whitehorse’s isolation, hockey players have been as difficult to export as N.H.L. merchandise to ship in. It is a hockey-mad area, and it has produced a smattering of college-level players almost in spite of the obstacles the city’s size and distance create for player development.
“Our location and our ability to get games, and get games at an appropriate level for our players,” Martin Lawrie, Cozens’s youth coach, explained, describing the region’s barriers.

Edmonton is the closest N.H.L. market, at over 1,200 miles away, while Calgary (almost 1,400) and Vancouver (almost 1,500) are within relative distances. Only four players from the Yukon have been drafted into the N.H.L. in later rounds, and only two saw ice time: Peter Sturgeon played six games with the Colorado Rockies from 1979 to 1981, and Jarrett Deuling suited up for 15 games with the Islanders in the mid-90s.
So when Cozens, a 6-foot-3 forward who combines “Riverdale” cast member looks with explosive speed and a blindingly quick shot, became an elite hockey prospect, children in the Yukon suddenly had a model to aspire to.

Laura O’Brien’s 11-year-old son, Kadyn, was one of the three dozen players who tried out for the Pee Wee Mustangs — the same team Dylan Cozens played for nine years before. A half-dozen evaluators with clipboards, sitting high in the stands, intently surveyed the group, which included four girls.

Cozens, who starred last season for the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League, a major junior league, has been an inspiration for her son and many other children in the Yukon, O’Brien said.

“It gave them a lot more hope,” she said.

‘We’ve always prided ourselves in not being fun to play against.’
For many players in the towns in the territories, where the temperatures are low and the winters are long, the game starts on the pond.

When Dylan Cozens turned 3, his father, Mike, built a small rink in the backyard where Dylan, with his friends or brothers, would run games throughout the winter. When the ice melted, he spent hours alone atop a slick white hockey pad some 25 feet in front of the net, perfecting his wrist shots and dekes.

Even today, the mileage on the old rink is evident. Hundreds of divots and scuff marks fill much of the 12-foot wooden backstop behind the net.

“I’ve spent so much time out there, some of the best memories of my life,” Dylan Cozens said in a phone interview from Buffalo in September.

Hockey culture in Whitehorse is a lifelong cycle. It’s a place where people begin playing as toddlers and continue until they are in 55-and-over recreation leagues.

The people from Whitehorse are “just very honest hockey players,” Lawrie said. “We’ve always prided ourselves in not being fun to play against.”

When Cozens was 11, his profile soared regionally. In one tournament in Vancouver, he accounted for 28 of his team’s 30 points, including seven goals in its 8-0 championship victory. He returned home ranked second in Western Canada in his age group by Western Elite Prospects.

But at home, he was caught between being too good for the youth leagues and too small for the men’s. He joined a second-tier men’s beer league anyway, and in one game he was chased down by an opponent — the two collided into the boards. “This guy was about 225 pounds, 6 feet; Dylan was 12 years old and a hundred pounds lighter,” Mike Cozens said. “There was no comparison.”

Dylan Cozens broke his leg, missing a full season.

By the time he turned 14, the family knew his future was elsewhere.

“I needed to leave if I was going to make a name for myself,” Cozens said.

In the fall of 2015, he left Whitehorse for a hockey academy in Delta, British Columbia, embarking on a three-stop, linear path to the N.H.L.

The Dylan Effect

One by one, the mostly 13- and 14-year-old hopefuls whisked around cones and passed the blue line, firing pucks at a goalie, hoping to earn a spot on the Bantam Rivermen team.

The best, and youngest, of the bunch, Gavin McKenna, who was 11 at the time of the tryout, skated with speed and grace, handling the puck with creativity and control.

“He’s doing things that I didn’t see Dylan do at the same age,” Lawrie, Cozens’s youth coach, said.

Last summer, McKenna played with a club team based in Ontario that competed in Italy and Los Angeles. He said he dreamed of playing for Canada in the Olympics and, of course, starring in the N.H.L. He, too, will be expected to leave the Yukon.

“We hope to keep him around for at least two to three more years,” his father, Willy, said.

Though hockey officials in Whitehorse still concede that the area’s elite players will have to move out of the territory to realize their dreams, they hope an improved infrastructure will push back the departure date. Four years ago, Air North added flight options (flat rates, no change fees, unlimited baggage, chartered flights) for teams and parents that made it easier to travel to tournaments in distant destinations like Dawson Creek and Powell River in British Columbia.

Then there is the Bantam Rivermen team that joined the B.C. Hockey Zone Program, arriving in Whitehorse two years after Cozens left. In the third year of the program’s three-year pilot, the team has the potential to make a difference in players staying home, if it continues. “And we actually get home games where teams actually come up to play us,” said Justin Halowaty, president of the Whitehorse Minor Hockey Association. “That’s making a difference for players to stay.”

Mike Cozens, a territorial court judge, and his wife, Sue Bogle, a prosecutor, will not need Air North when Dylan first suits up with the Sabres — his entry-level contract states that his family will be flown to the N.H.L. city in which he makes his debut. Despite a strong showing in training camp and preseason, the Sabres sent Dylan back to Lethbridge for more development. He has tallied 46 points and 20 goals. Earlier this month, he scored a key goal in the gold medal game against Russia to help Canada win the 2020 world junior championships.

But back in the Yukon, Dylan Cozens is a pioneer.

“He showed kids that a kid from here can play at the highest level,” Lawrie said. “For years, we’ve been preaching to the kids that ‘the only difference between you and the kid from Vancouver is where you’re living.’”

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