Yukon’s Dylan Cozens set to make history: ‘I knew I had to get away’

Looking ahead to the 2019 NHL draft, Dylan Cozens is a top rated prospect, which is an oddity in itself, as Cozens hails from Whitehorse, Yukon, an area of Canada that has never produced a first round draft pick.

Sue Cozens knew something had to change when her 12-year-old son was just lying there on the ice. The kid so entranced by the speed of the game wasn’t moving.

Starving for opposition worthy of his age-defying skillset in a one-rep-club town, a preteen Dylan Cozens had begun skating in an adult recreational league in Whitehorse, Yukon.

In a remote city of 26,000, it was the only way to find players who could keep up with and, hopefully, sharpen the tools of a hockey-obsessed talent who’d been shredding Mike and Sue’s backyard pad since age three.

But when a grownup and a kid are racing toward the same dumped-in puck, size can trump skill with the resounding crack of a broken leg.

"We were both skating down for the puck. He fell and took me out, and we both went into the boards with him behind me, so he crushed it. He was 230 pounds or so, and I was only 12 years old," Cozens recalls.

"He was a big guy, just playing in a beer league. It wasn’t ideal, for sure. I knew I had to get away."

The scene was so frightening, it was difficult for a mother to watch. Harder than letting her boy leave the house, the city, the territory at just 14 years of age.

Because to keep Dylan at home, to keep him sending a legitimate young talent over the boards to battle in some ridiculous men’s rec league, well, the Cozens would only be standing in the way of Dylan’s dream.

And one thing good hockey parents are not is selfish.

So, once his leg healed, Cozens packed up his clothes, his gear and his hopes and headed south solo, to Langley, B.C., an hour’s drive from Vancouver’s Rogers Arena — where he’ll make history Friday night when he becomes the first-ever Yukon-born hockey player drafted to the NHL in the first round.

"It was definitely really tough on me and family being so young, leaving them behind. And moving to a bigger city was different. But it was necessary for me if I wanted to chase my dreams and goals," says Cozens, mindful to note his parents’ sacrifice. "It was my WHL draft year, so I wanted to get some exposure for myself. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t change it at all.

"I missed my family. I missed my bed. But I ended up with a really good billet family that took good care of me. There was never a moment where I needed to go home or anything. They accepted me like part of the family, and that helped a lot."

Mayo’s Hazen McAndrew became the Yukon’s first NHLer when the defenceman skated in seven games for the Brooklyn Americans in 1941-42. Whitehorse’s Peter Sturgeon played six games for the Colorado Rockies between 1979 and 1981. Byron Baltimore dressed just twice for the Edmonton Oilers in 1979-80. None of the three Yukon-born NHLers scored a goal in the big leagues.

No one from the Cozens’ home province has made it since.

"It’s been a long time, for sure. I know those guys. They didn’t play too many games. I want to be that guy who paves the path for the Yukon and gets some exposure for that city and shows that players can come from anywhere," says Cozens.

As his friends from Langley flood the stands Friday night, Cozens’ parents have tried to instill in their son what this moment, what his career will mean to the Territories, whose most recent first-rounder, Yellowknife’s Greg Vaydik, played just five games for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1976-77 (the seventh-overall choice failed to score) before tumbling back to the minors.

"It’s definitely gonna get crazy up there. It’s awesome," says Cozens, 18. "I just love to represent the Yukon."

So far, so good.

The 6-foot-3 power forward exploded for 34 goals and 84 points this season, his second with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, while registering a plus-32 rating and adding another eight points in seven playoff contests.

A centreman and Blackhawks fan who grew up idolizing Jonathan Toews "on and off the ice," Cozens prides himself on a steady two-way game. As one of the five elite prospects invited to attend a Stanley Cup game this month, Cozens was most excited to meet Patrice Bergeron.

"It’s kind of a player I want to be like — he’s so responsible offensively and defensively," Cozens says. "Just to shake him in the hand and look him in the eye, it’s a little surreal."

While getting selected by Chicago at No. 3 may be a long shot, the majority of mock drafts slot Cozens in the top-10, and he says only a dozen NHL teams requested an interview at the combine.

It’s doubtful he’s still on the board when the Canucks pick at 10, but Cozens admits he was a little more anxious when meeting a couple of his unnamed favourites.

"You want to impress them," he says. "There’s a little bit more nervousness there, for sure.

"They want to see how you react to certain questions, and they want to see what type of person you are. But you just gotta be yourself, answer truthfully, and everything will work out."

Even for a beer-leaguer way too young to drink.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.