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Coming Into His Own

by David Alter / Toronto Maple Leafs

While playing hockey for a living is the ultimate dream come true for any young player, not everything you are passionate about is always fun. In fact, a little nitpicking could lead to finding something you don’t like.

For a young Tyler Bozak growing up in Regina, the element of hockey he didn’t particularly want to work on was faceoffs.

But all it took was a little bit of pushing from his dad Mitch.

“Growing up, it was something that I don’t think a lot of people worked on or took seriously,” Bozak said. “I didn’t like it but it was something he always told me was an important part of the game. For me as a centreman, it was something that I should work on that could give me that little edge on other guys. It’s something I pride myself on.”

That advice is paying dividends for the Leafs centre, who is enjoying a career year in this his sixth NHL season.

Usually an above 50 per cent faceoff man, Bozak struggled in that department last season, finishing at 48.7 per cent.

This year is different.

Among eligible players, through 26 games, Bozak sits sixth in the NHL at 57.5 per cent. Of the five players above him in the standings, no one has surpassed his point total.

With his 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists), he’s on track to eclipse previous season bests set last year of 19 goals and 30 assists in 58 games.

Bozak didn’t take the conventional approach expected from a centre playing top-line minutes. From the day the Maple Leafs signed him, to his current success, Bozak never predicted the role he finds himself in many years later.

“It’s hard to say, I’ve tried to get better every year at every level. I was a late bloomer, so I’ve slowly progressed at probably an older age than most have,” he said. “But I feel like I’m still getting better and have more to give so hopefully I can keep improving.”

He grew up in Saskatchewan, but it was Victoria where Bozak’s career took off, when he started playing in the BCHL. Playing at the junior ‘A’ level allowed for him to shine, and he won the Brett Hull Trophy for the league’s top scorer with 128 points in 2007.

Bozak’s performance earned him a hockey scholarship at the University of Denver. After two years with the Pioneers, as many as 20 NHL teams showed a strong interest in Bozak, considering he matured in a path that showed his skill during his university days. Toronto won those sweepstakes, signing him to a contract on April 3, 2009. His signing represented an overhaul to the look and feel of the roster, and he along with roommate Phil Kessel are the longest active serving players on the Leafs.

While he was eligible to join the Leafs right away, Bozak opted for rehab after suffering a knee injury, and recovery took up a large part of his summer. With size being an issue, the injury served to be a blessing in disguise as he focussed on upper-body work, adding 20 pounds to his frame.

An opportunity to make the Leafs roster in his first year of pro was possible, but Bozak started the 2009-10 campaign with the Toronto Marlies. It was perhaps another stroke of good luck, avoiding what would be one of the Leafs’ worst starts to a season at 0-7-1. He was promoted halfway through that season, and was slowed by a massive flu that many believed to be the dreaded H1N1 virus, losing 12 pounds in the process. But since then, despite a roadblocks, he hasn’t looked back.

Still, there is at least one area of Bozak’s game he hopes to improve on.

“I worked on my shot a lot this summer, that’s something I wanted to get better at. I felt I was looking to pass a little too much. Now when the opportunity is there, I feel like I shoot a little bit more, bear down a little bit more in scoring situations,” he said.

Bozak led the league last season in shooting percentage among eligible players at 21.1 per cent. This year, his shooting percentage dipped to 19.3 percent, but he is averaging 0.7 shots per game than he did last year. He’s definitely shooting the puck more, and so far it is a positive effect for all involved.

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