The last time Dylan Cozens and Bowen Byram played hockey internationally with the leaf on their chest, the two were at Ostravar Arena, being handed their gold medals before a raucous sold out crowd.
This time around in Edmonton, things are set to look a little bit different. Both were invited to Red Deer to participate in Canada’s SportChek Selection Camp, and with a number of familiar faces, they will look to continue what they started last winter.
The only difference is this time around, they will do so on home ice and there will be no crowd around. This is due to COVID-19, which forced Hockey Canada to press pause on the tournament. In a matter of weeks, it allowed the staff and COVID committee enough time to plan to safely pull off the event.
What’s different on the player end is that the last time Cozens and Byram represented their country, face masks weren’t mandatory, nor was social distancing. All that freedom we once had had changed the world of sports out of abundance of caution.
Speaking to the thing that stands out, the many measures in place to ensure safety in Red Deer, Kirby Dach, a late addition to the roster, said of what that will look like for the next 51 days, “I think a lot has changed. Obviously, I was at the camp last year and Dylan can talk a little bit about that, but with the COVID protocols, and stuff like that, we just gotta be a little bit more tedious in our details and make sure that we’re keeping each other safe, and then when we get on the ice, it’s back to business as usual, we gotta find a way to find a groove here and keep pushing forward and find another gear each and every day.”
With camp now underway as of Wednesday, that feeling is mutual among his 46 teammates. As touched on an hour prior by Jack Quinn, the many Canadians see the length as an advantage. They will use this time to mesh together, not only as teammates, but as friends off the ice.
While the circumstances are less than ideal, they will make the most of it, something Dylan Cozens is certain of. With many players rooming together at a hotel nearby Westerner Park Centrium, it presents them an opportunity to build additional chemistry as it pertains to strategy.
The reality was well understood, as the two both touched on following practice on Tuesday. “Lots of time to gel and get closer. It will be good for us in the long run,” Cozens said of being in the bubble. Speaking of being in a bubble, it’s all too familiar for his counterpart, Kirby Dach.
Dach spent the 2020 postseason with the Chicago Blackhawks bubbled up in Edmonton. Being not too far from the host site, the forward joked about playing there while beating the Oilers. “It was a lot of fun, lost a few friendships beating Edmonton. I’ve played my fair share of games there (at Rogers Place).”
This time, it’s a bigger task, as they look to take down their rival country in USA Hockey. Knowing what goes into this battle, Cozens said of his return in hopes of hoisting the trophy, “It’s going to take a lot of work. We have to battle and compete in our practices, build chemistry. Just work as hard as we can. We have more faces and people than most camps. But we have lots of time to figure it out.”
The difference between rosters for Canada this time is that given the uncertain circumstances, the IIHF approved an increase from 21 to 23 players on the roster. While that rule is still weeks away, selection camp is unique with 46 players invited.
However, one can note right now that given the need for testing and clearance, Canada is currently missing 12-15 players. Speaking to the media Tuesday night, coach Andre Tourigny stressed precautions and safety.
Speaking to the bubble’s significance and the off-time provided by the global pandemic, Dach said, “With the uncertain times of COVID, it gave me the opportunity to do this. When they were doing the bubble format, I got on the phone with my agent to get the ball rolling to be here.”
Now that Dach has arrived, he understands his position, alike his 45 teammates. All chasing after the same thing, the mindset now in the locker room is defend the world title. Having previously chased the Stanley Cup championship, the centreman now transfers that energy to the World Juniors. “For me, it’s about being confident in my game. I think all these guys have that. They are great players, it’s an honour and privilege to play with these guys.”
Unlike Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens was apart of the gold medal winning team. Having that experience under his belt, he wants to carry the torch as team captain in Edmonton. “I want to be a leader on this team. I want to lead by example, giving my all to do whatever it takes to win. I want to be one of the guys that people look up to.”
He acknowledges the fact that surrounding him are some of the best junior players in the country. With that, 27 invitees were first-round picks in the NHL Draft. Walking into Red Deer with that confidence, Cozens is conscious of the choices made by Hockey Canada.
“Looking at the roster, there are a lot of guys getting picked really high. They want guys to do whatever it takes to win. To build the best team, you need guys to fill different roles.” While that will lead to hard choices down the line, coach Andre Tourigny knows what they are looking for.
While Dach saw time last season in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks, joining Team Canada’s roster means a younger crowd that is more his age group. Speaking to the energy that entails, the native of Saskatchewan said of what is to come, “It’s a different setting. To come back and be around guys my age, going through the same things I’m going through, we grew up playing with and against each other. It’s fun and nice to be back.”
As they look to leave their mark on Westerner Park Centrium, and later on, Rogers Place, Dach and company entered on Tuesday knowing one thing for sure, on the top of their minds; they must start off strong to win it all. For Dach, being zoned in completely with minimal distractions should only assist with that.
“You’re around them more. There are less distractions. You don’t have to worry about things outside the world. We are focused on one goal to win a gold medal game.” Being with Team Canada, however, presents its own challenges with NHL plans underway. The hope is a late start in January, Dach can remain with the team through the tournament.
When Dach first joined the team three weeks back, Alan Millar stated that in the event that the NHL season starts before the World Juniors, the understanding is with Stan Bowman that the forward will then be released and returned.
Wanting to chase gold with his country, Dach has expressed where his attention lies right now. “Obviously, it’s a difficult situation when we don’t know when the NHL is going to start. It’ll be tough to miss a potential Gold Medal Game. I’m just focused on my time here.”
With day one of camp in the books, there’s one commonality that all players share. A return to full action was difficult. Jack Quinn said the first skate was intense, a sentiment agreed upon by forward Dylan Cozens.
However, much like Jack Quinn and 44 others, the centreman made sure he put the work in this summer. He did so despite no return date while keeping hope alive that more lies beyond Lethbridge next season. “Biggest thing was getting my body ready to play a full NHL season. I put on some weight, got bigger, faster, stronger. I’m excited to get going again here.”
As for Kirby Dach in discussing his routine and what benefits that’s paved for him, he said, “Time off was needed. It’s a lot going on in a draft year between regular season, playoffs, U18, combine and development camps. Took some time off and discovered a new training regimen.”
Now back and ready to rumble, coach Andre Tourigny looks to guide them to victory. “I sign a one-year contract. Right here, right now.” Reaffirming of Tuesday’s biggest takeaway, Tourigny said of how players will be relied upon, “That was one of our big messages today. All the players here are star players. We have guys who’ve been drafted in the NHL. We expect from all of them to set the bar and expectation for our team.”