TORONTO – As a teenager, Dominic Cozzolino dreamed of playing in the NHL. His favourite player was Joe Sakic and his favorite team the Montreal Canadiens.
It was a legitimate goal. Cozzolino was an outstanding player reaching AA levels and on track for AAA in Mississauga’s minor hockey system, one of the world’s Meccas in hockey development.
But on March 3, 2009 at age 14, his dream came to a crashing halt when he was checked from behind during a AA hockey game with the Jets, for whom he was the leading scorer. With two minutes remaining in the game, he was hit and fell into the boards awkwardly which caused a compression fracture to his L1 and L2 vertebrae (lower back).
The prognosis was a 50-50 chance to walk again and zero chance to play hockey at the same level. It’s not hard to imagine the torment going through a 14-year-old-boy whose visions of greatness were dashed.
‘’I thought sports were done for me,’’ Cozzolino said recently in Toronto. ‘’It was a sad time in my life. Sports were everything for me when I was young growing up and to have that taken away from me was pretty sad.’’
Cozzolino spent the next three years in a wheelchair, and he would religiously attend his daily double physiotherapy sessions.
‘’I remember my Mom and Dad would sleep over at the hospital with me for months just keeping an eye on me and making sure I was all right,’’ he said. ‘’They were always there to pick me up when I was down and that’s something I’m very thankful to have.’’
Three years later, like a scene out of Hollywood movie, Cozzolino lifted himself from the wheelchair and took his first steps. That hard work in therapy would serve him well in the next chapter of his hockey career: Para ice hockey.
‘’Getting in the sled for the first time was a little bit tough,’’ he admitted. ‘’Just learning the skills to stay balanced and turn and stop. I remember my first two-to-three ice times I couldn’t figure out how to stop. I was just crashing into everything.
“That was a little bit discouraging but I had a lot of great teammates and good people around me to help me figure it out and I haven’t looked back since.’’
Despite his excellence in his previous hockey career, Para ice hockey presented new challenges. Suddenly muscles he didn’t know he had, particularly in the upper body, needed to be re-enforced and molded to operate in different directions and provide new strengths.
‘’Definitely building the right muscles is a challenge,’’ he said. ‘’I think a lot of it is sled set-up and developing those skills to make a sharp turn or stop on a dime. I think with the right set-up, that’s where you start. Then you need the good work ethic and lots of practice.”
Cozzolino, who says Para ice hockey helped give him his love of hockey back, played for the national developmental team in 2014 and 2015 before joining Team Canada. He is a world champion from 2017 and a silver medallist at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games.
“The first time I walked into the dressing room and saw the Canada crest on all of the jerseys, I almost broke out in tears. The feeling hasn’t differed much since, it’s always a special feeling pulling that jersey over your shoulders.”
The long surgical scar that slices from his tummy to his back on the left side is a daily reminder for Cozzolino that he’s experienced two different lives.
But, when his slips on his No. 19 Team Canada jersey, the same number as his idol, he is simply: Dominic Cozzolino – hockey player.