TORONTO – A notable absentee from the Para ice hockey team at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing was scoring forward Dominic Cozzolino.
A member of the 2017 world champion squad, the 28-year-old from Mississauga, Ont. helped Canada to silver medals at the next two worlds in 2019 and 2021 as well as second place at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
But for the 2021-22 season, Cozzolino needed a mental and physical break from the game.
“It was a combination of a lot of things,” he said this past March at the ParaTough Cup in Toronto about his sabbatical. “I needed to get back mentally to compete at the highest level and also get my body physically ready again.”
The time away also made Cozzolino realize the importance of the unique Para sport community to his life.
“It’s the old cliché, you don’t know what you got until it’s gone,” he said. “I’m so happy to be back and I’m feeling better than ever.”
That’s certainly shown this year on the ice. That's good news for Team Canada which will battle for gold at the world championships May 28 to June 4 in Moose Jaw, Sask.
In the season-opening tournament last fall, the International Para Hockey Cup in Ostrava, Czechia, Cozzolino collected four goals and three assists over five games including a four-point night against the European All Star team. He also had a five-assist night at the Para Hockey Cup hosted in Canada in December and nine points in five games overall.
“I wasn’t ready to give up the game,” he said. “We have a great locker room, made lifelong friendships, and I want to be there for my teammates and help us get the gold in 2026.
“The team is a lot younger, and we are working towards the same goal. There are some growing pains, but this is an exciting time for the team.”
Six-time Paralympian Billy Bridges, who is recovering from injury this season, is delighted to see Cozzolino back on the squad.
“He is an irreplaceable teammate,” said Bridges. “I would take Dom on my team at 30 percent because he has always been 100 percent team. He is one of the greatest playmakers I’ve ever played with. He makes the sport better.”
Cozzolino was checked from behind during a minor hockey game in 2009 which caused a compression fracture to his spinal cord. He is still able to walk and started playing Para ice hockey, then known as sledge hockey, in 2012 with the Mississauga Cruisers.
“I grew up a normal Canadian kid and played stand-up hockey,” he recalled. “But the first time I used a sled I couldn’t do anything, and my mom didn’t want me to do it. Still she ended up driving me to that first practice. I was initially frustrated. My love for the game pushed me to keep practicing. I received a lot of help from the Para hockey community.
“I had to adjust my game a lot. I was a goal scorer, now I’m more of a playmaker with more finesse.”
For Cozzolino it is important to give back as well. He is involved with Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, as well as TELUS End Bullying and is an ambassador at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.
“You don’t know what a person is struggling with,” he said. “You never know when the next kid with a disability who gets into Para sport will become a Paralympian. Early on I got a lot of mentorship from teammates and encouragement from family and the community.
“In the Para sport community you meet so many great people. They’ve been through some incredible life changing things. They are the best people to be around.
“I don’t see myself stepping out of Para ice hockey anytime soon.”