At a glance, Dylan Cozens’s rise as an elite NHL prospect is a story that’s been told many times before.
As a boy Cozens dreamed of one day playing in the NHL, growing his love for the game and sharpening his skills on a backyard rink. Day after day, he played on that rink until it was pitch black out and his father arrived to force him off.
There have been many great hockey players with similar origin stories. Where Cozens differs, however, is that he skated on that backyard pond all year round.
“It was always cold enough for me to have a backyard rink,” the native of Whitehorse, Yukon, told Sportsnet in an interview last spring. “And that has really helped me get where I am today.”
When you get right down to it, Cozens isn’t like other big-time NHL prospects, and that’s because of where he’s from and what he’s had to do to get where he is today.
Currently in his fourth season with the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, Cozens achieved his ultimate goal last June when the Buffalo Sabres selected him seventh overall in the NHL Entry Draft. Now he’s set to become just the third player born in the Yukon to play in the world’s most prestigious hockey league, according to Hockey Reference.
It wasn’t always this way, though — not by a long shot. It took a lot more individual work on Cozens’s part to get discovered than, say, a kid from Ontario.
His journey started when he was six years old and first began organized play under the watchful eye of coach Martin Lawrie. At first, however, he was just like everyone else.
“Dylan, surprisingly, when we first coached him wasn’t a great skater,” said Lawrie of Cozens’s earliest hockey-playing years. “He did a lot of work there to improve that.”
By the time he was ready for Peewee hockey, though, it was already becoming clear that he wasn’t like everyone else.
“His skating was really coming along, he had a real natural high hockey IQ – he was seeing the ice very well and understood the game,” said Lawrie. “He was ahead of the other players that were playing very often. So that’s probably when you started hearing whispers around town and around the rink that there’s a young guy that might go a long way in this sport.”
And keep in mind here, he was impressing while constantly playing at least a year up.
“I was always playing up in age, going against older guys,” said Cozens. “Once I got to a certain age I was playing against grown men in a rec league.”
But at 12 years old he actually ended up breaking his leg in one of those rec-league games. The injury layoff gave Cozens some perspective on his own life and career, and he ultimately decided he’d be better off at that point playing against his own age group.
The only problem: Whitehorse was likely too small for his burgeoning talents. So he made the difficult decision to move to British Columbia all by himself at the age of 14 to join Delta Hockey Academy.
“It was definitely hard moving away at such a young age and it was definitely hard on my parents, but they supported me fully and they knew that’s what I needed to do to help me achieve my goals and dreams,” Cozens said.
Scary as it may have been, moving out was probably the single-best decision Cozens made for himself as it instilled in him the confidence required to both chase after his NHL dream and to take the steps to make it a reality.
“I had always dreamed about it, but I had never really thought of it being true until this one tournament in first-year Bantam when I went down to Vancouver,” he said. “I just had a really good tournament there, [and] that’s when I knew that I needed to get away and get my name out there before the Bantam draft.”
This revelation led Cozens to leave Delta and head to Yale Hockey Academy in Abbotsford, B.C., where he had a standout season, scoring 57 points in 30 games played, good for a tie for the league lead.
Cozens was then taken 19th overall in the 2016 WHL draft by Lethbridge, which Hurricanes GM Peter Anholt considered a good get on draft night and recognizes as a major steal in hindsight.
“We had him on our list at nine,” said Lethbridge GM Peter Anholt, “so we weren’t too much smarter than anybody else.”
Not only has Cozens been a productive player for the Hurricanes — he’s proven himself to be a clutch one as well. There’s no greater example of that than when he first burst onto the scene nationally.
In the second round of the 2017 WHL playoffs against Medicine Hat, Cozens was called up and made his major-junior debut, an impressive feat for any 16-year-old. He became the stuff of national headlines, however, when, in Game 7 of the series, he tied the game with about two minutes to go to send the game into overtime — where Lethbridge would win.
“That was a big step for him to [go] from not playing in the first round to be on the ice with two minutes to go in Game 7,” said Hurricanes head coach Brent Kisio.
Since then, both Cozens’s stature and skills have grown immensely. In his first full season with Lethbridge, Cozens had 22 goals and 53 points in 57 games. He followed that up with a 33-goal, 83-point effort in 66 games played last season.
Standing at six-foot-three and coming in at 185 pounds with an electric skating ability and a natural goal-scoring touch, Cozens is about as good as it gets for an 18-year-old playing major junior. And despite missing out on most of the summer training he’d planned after breaking his thumb at the Sabres’ post-draft development camp, Cozens recovered in time to put up another stellar season in Lethbridge. He also made his mark at world juniors, putting up nine points in seven games and helping Canada to the gold medal while constantly improving his game.
How 'bout them #WorldJuniors players??
— Lethbridge Hurricanes (@WHLHurricanes) January 25, 2020
“My impression when I first started scouting him is that he’s a prototype winger,” said Lethbridge director of player development Bob Bartlett, who was working for Moose Jaw when he started scouting Cozens. “He’s just grown and he’s had good opportunities and has taken advantage of them all.”
And because of his positional versatility, Anholt sees a lot of a current NHL player in Cozens.
“My comparison, whether it’s right or wrong, is Jeff Carter,” said the Hurricanes GM. “And I think Jeff Carter was such a great junior and he’s been such a great pro, and there’s a lot of comparisons because Jeff Carter can play right wing, he can play centre, he can score.”
Now it’s only a matter of time until Cozens is suiting up alongside Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin in Buffalo. It’s the kind of story that you’d expect to see in a made-for-T.V. movie — summertime backyard rink included, of course. But Cozens’s story is real, and it’s just getting started.
This is an updated version of a story that initially ran in March 2019.