Brandon Kozun took a few strides at practice on Thurday morning, looked at Calgary Hitmen head coach Mike Williamson and gave him a quick nod – he’s good to go.
“I’ll be in the lineup (Friday),” said the star forward after the skate.
The Hitmen will play their WHL Eastern Conference rival, the Brandon Wheat Kings, for the second time in three nights. Calgary has now beaten Brandon five straight times in the postseason, including 5-1 on Wednesday night to end the round-robin portion of the tournament. The winner of Friday’s semifinal game will advance to the MasterCard Memorial Cup final on Sunday where they will face the defending champion Windsor Spitfires.
“It’s nice to get back on the ice, it felt really comfortable out there,” said Kozun, who led the entire Canadian Hockey league in scoring with 32 goals and 75 assists for 107 points in 65 regular-season WHL games.
Kozun was born in California’s San Fernando Valley – to an American father and Canadian mother – and moved to Calgary as a 10-year-old. He grew up playing against Brandon goaltender Jacob De Serres back in their minor hockey days. He said it’s hard to compare their personal rivalry as kids because at that time they were playing for fun, with much lower stakes.
“This is a little bigger deal than an atom championship,” said Kozun. “There’s a lot more motivation, there’s a lot more of that hurt now, so it’s a little bigger of a deal.”
In order to prepare for Saturday’s meeting in the semifinal, the Canadian world junior star said he’s been getting a lot of rest and has been seen strolling around the hotel with a protective walking boot on his foot.
“We’ve been doing some treatment, doing some ultrasound… and just resting,” said Kozun. “Get the recycling bin out of the hotel and get the foot in so that’s kind of what I’ve been doing. It seems to be working.”
The star forward has only played once so far at the Memorial Cup, just a few shifts in Calgary’s first game at the tournament, a 5-4 victory over the Moncton Wildcats. He sat out the next two games to help heal a leg injury suffered in the championship game of the WHL final. Even with the all the bad blood already boiling between the two teams, Kozun said he’s not worried about being a marked man against the Wheat Kings.
“I’m used to being a target,” said the diminutive forward who signed a three-year entry level contract with the L.A. Kings last month. “I’ve been targeted all playoffs and throughout the regular season so I’m not too worried about that, so they can target me all they want.”
The return is also a boost to his teammates who have missed the slick skating and offensive prowess of the right winger, generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds.
“It adds a great deal of confidence to our team and a lot of firepower for sure,” said teammate Jimmy Bubnick. “He’s got tremendous speed, he can make passes – I’ve never played with a playmaker like him so playing with him helps everyone out for sure.”
“It was really difficult (to play without him) at the start, but guys stepped up.”
Being forced to watch his Hitmen (2-1) play the round-robin without him was difficult, especially when he was seated right behind the net. Kozun said he’s happy he won’t be confined to the stands any longer.
“It feels awesome especially knowing I can contribute and knowing that I have that confidence in myself, it’s definitely going to help,” he said Kozun. “Watching those last couple of games has really been feeling something (emotional) inside of me. I’m really going to be ready to go.”
Sunaya Sapurji is the Jr. Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org