VANCOUVER — Dylan Cozens’ trip to Vancouver for the 2019 NHL Draft wasn’t a long one from his home in Whitehorse, Yukon a city in northwestern Canada. A quick two-hour flight brought him to where he will take the next step in hockey career.
His journey to get to this stage, and so close to the NHL, was a longer one.
Coming from Whitehorse, the only city in the Yukon, which has a population of about 25,000, there wasn’t a large youth hockey program in the area. Cozens played a lot against older competition and at age 12, he began playing in a league against grown men. It was during that time his career took a different turn.
In one of those games, Cozens was chasing down a puck when an opponent who was double his weight fell and took him out. Both players crashed into the boards, but it was Cozens who came out of it with a broken leg. While on the mend, he came to the conclusion that he needed to go elsewhere and play against players his own age in order to advance his hockey career.
“It was definitely really tough on me and my family, being so young and leaving them behind and moving down to the bigger city was different but we knew it was necessary for me if I wanted to chase my dreams and goals,” Cozens said. “It was my WHL draft year so I wanted to get some exposure for myself. I definitely wouldn’t change that path at all.”
The move took him to Langley, British Columbia where he joined the Delta Hockey Academy at age 14, staying with a billet family.
Being away from home didn’t affect Cozens as he put all of his focus into improving his game. After two years in British Columbia he was drafted by the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes. His play saw him finish top-five on the team in points in 2017-18 (53) and then lead the group this past season (84). NHL Central Scouting ranked him fifth among North American skaters.
When Cozens hears his name called on Friday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; livestream) , he’ll make history by being the first ever first-round selection from the Yukon. The area has only produced three NHL players: Bryon Baltimore, Jarrett Dueling, and Peter Sturgeon. The 18-year-old, who compares his game to that of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews due to their two-way play, is proud to hopefully one day become the fourth.
“It’s been a long time, for sure,” he said. “Those guys didn’t play too many games. But I want to be that guy who paves the path for the Yukon and gets some exposure for that city and show that players can come from anywhere.”
Cozens has the support of his hometown and still can’t get over when kids come up to him to talk hockey or ask for an autograph or photo.
“I don’t see myself as that special, I see myself as another kid,” he said. “To them, they look up to me and I want to give back to them. These are the people that supported me and people that have helped me get where I am, too.”
The pressures of excelling in his draft year didn’t affect Cozens. Through working with a mental coach and learning how to block out the pressure and outside noise allowed him to enjoy his season, which saw the Hurricanes reach the third round of the WHL playoffs.
Wherever he’s selected, Cozens is ready to do anything to achieve his NHL dream. He’s willing to spend the summer in the city of his new team to better his development, and while he sees himself as a center at 6-foot-3, 183 lbs., he’s open to playing on the wing if that’s what the team wants.
Cozens has literally come a long way to make his NHL dreams a reality. This weekend he’ll take that next step while not forgetting how he got here.
“I had to work really hard to get where I am today,” he said. “It’s taught me that if I want something, I have to work for it and to never give up and always believe. Lots of people told me it wasn’t realistic to play in the NHL coming from there. I didn’t listen to them and always saw it as a dream of mine. I think I’m getting closer to that dream every day.”
NBC Sports presents live, exclusive coverage of first round of the 2019 NHL Draft this Friday, June 21, at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live.