Kyle Kozma’s career timeline is not that of your prototypical hockey player. In fact there is nothing typical about it at all. He is a goaltender, however, and most do say that goaltenders are, well, a little different. But his story is certainly an all-timer.
Born in Toronto, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound netminder spent his childhood growing up in the Richmond Hill/Vaughan suburb of the Greater Toronto Area. Starting off in house league and working his way from ‘A’ hockey to AA, Kozma only first dressed as a AAA goaltender in his 15-year-old season.
In his minor-midget year, the large backstop actually suited up alongside recent NHL draft picks Alex Newhook and Quinton Byfield… talk about a talented squad. Coming into the picture late, Kozma did not hear his name called at the annual Ontario Hockey League Bantam Draft, so began exploring other options of future high-level play.
“Up until that point, everyone was trying to make the OHL,” he told Game On. “But after the OHL draft, a lot of guys start looking elsewhere and realized that there is a whole other league just as competitive as the OHL down in the states, and they’re putting just as many guys – maybe more – into the NHL. So after I didn’t get drafted I thought that maybe the NCAA is a better route for me. My future goal is to play Div I college hockey.”
After landing a goaltending job with the Drumheller Dragons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League for the start of the 2019-20 season, Kozma found himself released after a difficult two-game trial run.
“So I played the first two games and they didn’t go great,” he said candidly. “We went 1-1, losing in overtime but I personally didn’t play my best. The coach basically called me in and said ‘hey you’re not developing quick enough, so we’re gonna bring in an older more experienced goalie’. And just like that he gave me my release and I went home. But then I started calling all sorts of teams from Saskatchewan to Manitoba to other Alberta teams.”
And that’s where he story gets even better. After speaking with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Virden Oil Capitals, Kozma received a call back the following day from head coach Tyson Ramsey, to which the first year bench boss told the eager goaltender that the Oil Capitals just might be a fit.
“He had never heard of me, but told me he did his research and that the spot is mine if I wanted it,” Kozma reflected. “Two or three days after that I was on a plane to Winnipeg. I flew to Winnipeg, got on a shuttle that took me to Brandon, and then our billet coordinator picked me up at a Tim Horton’s on the side of the highway and took me to my billet family. Oddly enough, this all happened at like 10 o’clock at night in the pitch dark, so that was quite the Manitoba welcome.”
But as they often say in hockey, it’s not about how it begins, but more so about how it ends.
Unfortunately for Kozma, a fantastic MJHL career was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following a sensational 2019-20 season, to which he led all rookie goaltenders with a 13-6-0 record and a 2.96 goals against average, the newcomer helped Virden to nearly half of its team wins, despite only joining the club two months into the season.
But then COVID struck and the season was put on hold, before being outright cancelled months later. Then after months of preparation, the MJHL returned in the fall of 2020… but once again the year was cut short due to the virus.
“Obviously we were all excited to play,” Kozma said of his return to Manitoba for the 2020-21 season. “Nobody really knew what was happening, even throughout the summer. So when we heard we were going to play everyone was super excited. We just came out of the gate flying. We were undefeated in regulation in nine games. But then closer to the league being put on pause, everyone felt the same feeling of what was going on last year. That same vibe was floating around the rink, like ‘are we gonna get shutdown again?’ It sucked. And then they told everyone to go home.”
While staying put back at home in Ontario, Kozma’s attention was on the declining COVID-19 case numbers in Manitoba. Unable to even practice as all rinks were closed, the 20-year-0ld goaltender just couldn’t fathom the thought of a second lost season.
“The whole time I was at home I was just waiting for the call to come back telling me that they’re gonna resume the season, and it just never happened,” he reflected. “We were all watching the case counts every day. When we got shutdown, Manitoba was averaging like 400 cases a day. Last week it was at 50 new cases daily, so everyone was thinking ‘great, we’re gonna get back into it’. But unfortunately, the government just wouldn’t allow indoor sports, and it just really sucks.”
However, with the United States Premier Hockey League back up and operating, Kozma jumped at the opportunity to get back in goal when the Utah Outliers came calling.
“I got a call from the scout down with the Outliers, and their goalie had just gotten hurt,” Kozma said. “He wanted me to come down here and finish out the season and carry them into the playoffs. I figured that if it’s the only chance I’m going to get to play hockey this year, well I might as well take it. Obviously the U.S. might not be the most ideal place to be right now, but for hockey, it’s either this or nothing.”
But clearly, the decision has paid off, as the well-travelled netminder now owns a winning record and a sparkling .904 save percentage down in Utah.
“I’ve started every game since I’ve been here. Actually, within four hours of getting off the plane I was in a game. That one didn’t got very well, but all of the others have,” he laughed. “It just feels really good to finally play again. Some of the other guys on the team are also from Ontario and their leagues didn’t even start in September, so they hadn’t even played since last February. All us Canadian guys are just super excited to be playing again.”
Arriving in Texas on the only day in the past 10 years in which the state saw a massive dumping of snow, Kozma certainly brought some Canadiana with him across the border.
“Nobody knows what to do because there’s never snow in Texas,” Kozma said of his travels down south. “My connector flight to Salt Lake City was cancelled; they actually shutdown the whole airport. I spent the night in Dallas and then I got on the first flight next more into Salt Lake. The team picked me up from the airport and took me right to the rink in time for puck drop.”
Although now residing roughly 2,000 miles from his Richmond Hill home, Kozma won’t have to do much travelling with the Outliers. The furthest road trip within his USPHL division is approximately an hour away. But with opportunity to play against out-of-division teams from California and Nevada, there is always a possibility for some other out-of-state matchups.