Dominic Cozzolino has always looked up to the great Canadian hockey legend Joe Sakic — he still has his No. 19 jersey from when he was a kid.
“I remember being three or four years old skating in my backyard wearing a Joe Sakic jersey,” Cozzolino recalls. “I still have it and still wear it. Maybe doesn’t fit over my shoulder pads anymore but I still put it on here and there.”
Cozzolino, 23, grew up in Mississauga, Ont. Hockey has been his life. Following in the footsteps of Sakic was his plan and his NHL dream was on track. He was working his way up the ranks in Ontario hockey. He’d always wanted to hoist the Stanley Cup. He’d always wanted to wear the Maple Leaf for Canada at the Olympics.
On Thursday afternoon in Pyeongchang, Cozzolina will take to the ice with the rest of Team Canada in a pivotal semifinal para Ice hockey game against Korea at the Paralympics. A win gives Canada the opportunity to capture Paralympic gold for the first time since 2006.
Cozzolino is wearing No. 19, just like his idol.
“This has always been the dream it’s just maybe not the way I would have imagined it as a little kid but anytime you get to pull this jersey over your shoulders it’s a pretty special feeling.”
Nine years ago this month, disaster struck.
With less than two minutes remaining in an important AA hockey playoff game, Cozzolino was checked from behind. He crashed into the boards and couldn’t get up.
On March 3, 2009 just hours after that horrific hit, doctors told Cozzolino he had a 50-50 chance of walking again. It’s still hard for him to talk about today. Cozzolino talks about it, he’d just rather focus on the positives.
“Things happens and I’ve always believe they happen for a reason. If you dwell on the negatives in those situations you get stuck.”
Learning how to walk again
Cozzolino wasn’t going to accept that he may never walk again.
Three-and-a-half months after the accident, he returned home in a wheelchair and a walker. He started slowly, leaning against the wall or whatever he could for a short period of time just trying to learn to stand again.
For three years following the accident, Cozzolino went to physiotherapy twice a day, every day of the week.
“I had a such a great support system helping me. My parents made so many sacrifices during that time. My friends were always there and so were my hockey coaches,” he said.
Then it happened — Cozzolino will never forget the day he took his first steps. It was the moment he says he started believing in having a future in hockey again and having something to work towards.
“I always think back to my first steps after my accident. I just got up out of the wheelchair and my old hockey coach, Rick Gaetz, walked in the door of our home. Right at that moment. That will always have a place in my heart,” Cozzolino said.
Cozzolino finally wrapped his head around giving sledge hockey (now officially called para ice hockey) a try. It wasn’t the smoothest transition and it took some time for him to find his groove.
“I’m not going to lie, the first couple times on the ice it was tough,” Cozzolino said. “It was hard to get the hang of this. But I love the game so much that it was easy to put in the work and picture myself being where I am now and working to make that happen.”
Cozzolino will never forget the first time he headed to the Iceland Arena in Mississauga to try out.
The Iceland Arena is across the street from the Hershey Arena — where his accident took place and the last time he skated on his own two feet.
“It brought back a bunch of feelings for sure. It was a new beginning,” he said.
Cozzolino was hooked. Within a couple of times on the sled he was bound to do everything he could to be the best and to wear the Maple Leaf for Canada. Just three years after trying the sport for the first time, Cozzolino was invited to try out with the national team.
Six years later he’s playing a key role in Canada’s success at the 2018 Paralympics.
“It’s been a dream come true. Growing up I always wanted to wear a Canada jersey so to be able to do that on the biggest stage has been nothing but awesome.”