Bozak's fire for the game burns deep

 

The spark started when he was passed up in the NHL Draft. Since then, the flicker has turned into a flame whenever the game is on the line and a big goal needs to be scored. But every now and then, something will cause him to overheat.

 
 
 
 
 

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A fire burns inside Tyler Bozak.

The spark started when he was passed up in the NHL Draft. Since then, the flicker has turned into a flame whenever the game is on the line and a big goal needs to be scored. But every now and then, something will cause him to overheat.

"I like the fire," Bozak's University of Denver head coach, George Gwozdecky, says of his star student. "But not always how it ends up."

For example, Bozak doused himself in proverbial lighter fluid in a Dec. 12 game against Minnesota State. An opponent stuck out his leg and tripped the Regina native. No penalty was called. So the fuming forward scraped himself off the ice and took it upon himself to seek vigilante justice.

For the next 20 seconds, Bozak hunted down his hit-and-run assailant. But when he finally had his target lined up for a bodycheck, he missed and both players' knees collided awkwardly.

The incident cost Bozak 21 games and three months of rehab after he had to undergo surgery to repair a torn meniscus. It also took him out of the running for the Hobey Baker Award as the nation's top player and hurt his team's chances of making a run at the NCAA championship.

But, if anything, that competitive fire was the primary reason the 23-year-old became one of the most attractive college free agents this year.

"That's what stood out the first time I watched him play," said Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, whom signed Bozak to an entry-level contract in April.

"The first time I saw him play was probably the worst game he played in college. His team got spanked at home and he probably only had two shots on net. But I still loved how the rest of his team sagged and he just kept on battling.

"He was average at best, but I still liked him."

For most of his two-year NCAA career, Bozak was anything but average. He led the Pioneers in scoring with 34 points in 41 games as a freshman. And last season, despite playing just 19 games, he finished with 23 points and a team-high plus-14 rating.

But aside from his points or his ability to kill penalties or win crucial face-offs, Bozak's biggest asset is his Chris Drury-like character and competitiveness.

Those qualities were on display when Bozak returned from injury against Miami of Ohio for the West Regional semi-final. He may have been rusty and barely healed. But he still scored a goal and an assist in the 4-2 loss.

"I definitely wasn't 100%," he said, "but it was a do-or-die game and I felt I could help spark the guys on our team and just do what I could do out there to help them."

The Leafs, who beat out about 25 other NHL teams to acquire the late-bloomer, believe Bozak can also provide a spark to its rebuilding dressing room.

Burke said the signing was the equivalent to acquiring a second-round draft choice. But unlike Toronto's actual draft picks this year such as seventh-overall selection Nazem Kadri, Bozak is the only one expected to immediately jump into the NHL.

"I've had probably 20 general managers after we signed him say he'll be on our team next year," Burke said. "Because he's older and more developed, I would put him in a different class."

Indeed, Bozak -- and Toronto's other college free agent Christian Hanson -- is four years older than Kadri and most of the other players at this week's rookie camp. But after going undrafted and missing most of last season, he realizes that his dream of playing in the NHL can be snuffed out as easy as a flame.

"I definitely know that the team's not made yet," said Bozak, who has been training in Toronto for the last month. "I just want to come out and try to earn my spot. It's kind of always been like that. I've always been an underdog to make a team. But I've been lucky enough to make a few. So hopefully I can have a good camp and see what happens there."

mtraikos@nationalpost.com

 
 
 
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