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Family's belief paved road from the Yukon to Buffalo for Cozens

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

VANCOUVER - Dylan Cozens' journey from the Yukon to Buffalo began with a backyard, a bunch of logs and a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Dylan was three years old when Mike Cozens had the impromptu thought to build an ice rink outside his home, just as his father had done for him growing up. He quickly went to work, dragging logs from the wooded area behind their house to use as its frame. 

The rink became more sophisticated with each passing year, and Dylan would eventually spend entire weekend days skating with friends when weather permitted. Even when temperatures dipped into the negatives, they bundled up and squeezed in 20-minutes sessions. 

"When they started to put holes in the siding, I moved it into the backyard to make it a little wider, a little bit bigger," Mike recalled. "Then I started to put up better boards, better plywood. I just kind of did it. It's one of those things. My dad did it for me. It's what you do, right?"

That rink was the first in a series of decisions that ultimately brought Cozens to Rogers Arena on Friday night, where he was selected by the Sabres with the seventh overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

Video: Dylan Cozens Media Scrum

Only three players have made it from the Yukon to the NHL. Hazen McAndrew played seven games with the Brooklyn Americans in 1941-42. Bryan Baltimore made two appearances with Edmonton in 1979-80, the same season in which Peter Sturgeon played his first of six career games for Colorado. 

None of those players were first-round draft choices. Dylan's mother, Sue Bogle, said it felt like the entire territory was watching to see her son get drafted on Friday night. The weight of that achievement has not been lost on Dylan, who feels a level of responsibility as a trailblazer for his hometown.

"There's definitely pressure," he said. "There are just so many people that are talking to me about it and watching me. So many people that want to see me succeed. I don't want to let them down. Now that it's here and the draft's happened, I'm so excited."

It took sacrifice. Dylan's dream eventually outgrew his life in Whitehorse, where exposure and competition can be hard to come by for a young player with NHL aspirations. He challenged himself by playing in a men's league at age 12, but a hard hit into the boards left him with a broken leg.

Dylan's parents realized that if their son was going to have a chance to realize his dream, it wouldn't be in the Yukon. He left home at age 14 for Delta Hockey Academy, a prep school located south of Vancouver, where he was coached by former NHL forward Jaroslav Svejkovsky. 

Overlooking the cleared-out draft floor from the Buffalo suite inside Rogers Arena, Mike Cozens explained the thought that went into a "difficult but not difficult" decision to allow his son to leave. 

"It wasn't difficult to let him go because we knew he needed to go," he said. "In that sense, we knew he needed to get out and play against his peers. He played spring hockey; we could see he was good. But we knew he had to play that kind of hockey year-round so he could have the chance to see how good he could be.

"… What was difficult was leaving him emotionally, leaving him from a parenting point of view. Not having the opportunity to put him into bed at night, to have these daily conversations. That was hard. It was like, Wow, this is a huge thing we're doing. Not difficult to do, but difficult to live with."

Video: Sue Bogle reflects on how Cozens learned to skate

It took some time for Dylan to settle in, but he was aided by a supportive billet family and his conviction toward his dream. Within a few months, it was clear to his parents that he wasn't coming home. 

"This was the hardest thing, [realizing] he is never going to come home to live again on a permanent basis," the father said. "And that started at 14."

"It's so hard to see your 14-year-old leave home," Bogle added. "You kind of expect at maybe 18, 19, but you're not ready at 14. But you love your kid and you want to see them reach their full potential. This was something Dylan wanted. This was his dream. I didn't want to stand in the way of his dream. 

"Tonight, it feels like it was all worthwhile."

Cozens was selected by Lethbridge in the first round of the WHL's Bantam Draft in 2016, then went on to earn league rookie of the year honors in 2017-18. He won gold at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup with Team Canada to kick off his draft year last August.

He developed a maturity in the meantime, which was apparent to Sabres general manager Jason Botterill in their meetings throughout the draft process.

"He has a unique background growing up in Yukon, but there's a drive in him, a motivating factor in his work ethic and a knowledge of what he has to work on in his game," Botterill said. "That really came across in the meetings. He was driven to become a National Hockey League player.

"… In his mind, it hasn't been difficult. It's just what you have to do to accomplish your dreams."

Video: 10 Questions with Dylan Cozens

To that point, Dylan is aware his journey is only now just beginning. His father expects him to treat Buffalo with the same level of dedication he feels toward the Yukon.

"I think he's a good, character person," he said. "I think he accepts responsibility. I think he knows his obligation to his teammates. I think he knows his obligation to the people and the fanbase that support him. We always stressed accountability with him. 

"If you've been given an opportunities, if you've got talent, gifted or worked towards, you have a responsibility to use that wisely and not to be selfish with it. I think you'll find that he's a good person that way. He understands what he needs to do, and I think he'll work hard to really try and do it."
 

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