(Photo courtesy: https://huskies.usask.ca/)
Nipawin product and former Hawks’ goaltender Taran Kozun is in the home stretch of his sophomore season with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
The 24-year old is prepped to lead his team into the USPORTS University Cup in Lethbridge starting this week, and he’s fresh off being named the Canada West Goaltender of the Year.
Kozun posted remarkable numbers this season, with a 20-3 mark during the regular season to go along with a 1.81 GAA, .926 save percentage and five shutouts. Two of those shutouts came back to back, and the other three were all in a row, when he was busy setting a Canada West record with a 267 minute, 32 second shutout streak in late January, early February. He was actually just 4:02 away from a fourth consecutive shutout before finally letting one get by.
The Canada West playoffs didn’t go as planned for the Huskies, as the number one seed fell in three games to the University of Alberta in the Best-of-Three conference final. However it was hardly an upset as the #2 Golden Bears (24-3-6-0) finished just one point back of the Huskies (25-3-3-1).
The conference final saw the Huskies win the opener 4-2, before being shutout in Games 2 and 3, including 1-0 in the decisive Game 3, where Kozun made 27/28 saves. He was dueling with Alberta’s Zach Sawchenko, a former Moose Jaw Warrior, who made 29 saves for the shutout and had numbers very close to Kozun’s during the year, but had about 250 fewer minutes played.
Kozun, who spent the bulk of his junior days in the WHL with Kamloops and Seattle, says it was still a very successful campaign for him and his club.
“It was a lot of fun, a season to remember. When the team is having success like we did it makes my job a lot easier. Being able to play most of the games it was a blast to be in the net battling for my teammates most nights.”
Kozun’s days with his hometown Hawks were short, as he was assigned from Kamloops to Nipawin in his 17-year-old season, where he appeared in 16 games while being teamed up with all-star veteran Davis Jones.
“It was one of the most fun times I ever had in junior,” said Kozun of his stint with the Hawks. “Playing in Nipawin was a huge learning experience that helped me grow mentally and become more consistent. Davis Jones was a great leader and a tremendous goalie who showed me how hard I needed to practice to be consistent in games.”
Even though he wasn’t a Hawk for long, Taran says he was as happy as anyone to see their championship drought end a year ago, and that they’re poised for another run with the number one playoff seed heading into their Quarter-Final starting this weekend against Yorkton.
“I’m a huge fan, I’m always checking to see how they’re doing. It’s fun going home and hearing all about it and seeing how (Coach/GM) Doug (Johnson) has been able to make them better every year is wonderful to see. Seeing that rink full of fans and all the support the Hawks have in town is unreal. I can’t wait to get back home again and watch their playoff games.”
Coach Johnson meanwhile, says he had a feeling Kozun would be moving up the ranks as he saw a lot of promise in that partial season back in 2011-12.
“You could see a lot in Taran when he was 17. Technically he was outstanding, his angles and rebound control was very good. He’s also very athletic which allowed him to make the big saves when needed, and the biggest thing was how hard he worked. When Kamloops sent him down he came in with a great attitude and worked every day to get better.”
The WHL is the highest level of junior hockey in the province, and country being major junior, and Junior ‘A’ teams are often the recipient of CHL players trickling down, and/or losing them as they move up the ranks as was the case after a short stint with Kozun in Nipawin, and another example being Brandan Arnold last season who was up with Swift Current but returned and was a huge piece of the Hawks’ Canalta Cup winning squad. Johnson feels when a player moves on, it means the SJHL is doing its job.
“For me it’s not a tightrope. Yes we want to be as competitive as possible but at the end of the day our job is to develop players. If we lose them mid-season, great for them and we’ll adapt. Last year Lethbridge called up Zack Cox after the Showcase and he’s stayed there ever since. He would have looked great in our lineup but we did our job moving him on and stayed competitive. This year Prince George came calling for Cole Beamin and we end up bringing in Walker Cote. For us it’s about who’s in our lineup, not who isn’t, and when you have a successful program you’re going to lose players mid-season.”
As far as goaltenders specifically, Johnson and the Hawks have been blessed with a top goalie, or two, every year going back to two years of Davis Jones in 2011-2012 (with Kozun for part) and 2012-2013, followed by two seasons of Joe O’Brien in 2014 and 2015, Kristian Stead in 2016 and 2017, and then Declan Hobbs, another goalie with WHL experience, was up in the Western League with Spokane and Kootenay but spent much of last season in Nipawin, leading them to the title, and his numbers are even better this season. Patrick Pugliese is waiting in the wings, also posting remarkable stats this year and ready to take the baton from a graduating Hobbs next season. Of all those names, Hobbs is a Saskatchewan product, Jones from Alberta, Stead hailing from BC, while O’Brien and Pugliese (Pasadena, CA) both from south of the border.
“For some reason, yes, we seem to be a goalie factory and it’s hard to say why,” says Johnson. “Recruiting has paid dividends but some of these guys have fallen in our laps. Our goalies practice incredibly hard but most other teams do much the same as us. It’s a credit to them and I think it’s hurt them with individual awards because people say it’s our system but I’ve watched every game and that’s not the case. Our goalies have stolen many games year after year when we have breakdowns just like other teams have.”
Goaltending will be at the forefront, no question for the Hawks with Hobbs and/or Pugliese in these playoffs, and with the Yorkton Terriers coming in, sporting the league’s most goals for (242) going up against the Hawks who kept the puck out better than anyone, allowing a league-low 118 goals in 58 regular season games.
Before Kozun can get home to watch his hometown Hawks try to defend their Canalta Cup, he’s got other things on his plate, as he’s looking for a National Championship at the University Cup in Lethbridge. Canada West gets two entries into the eight team tournament, so the Huskies are still there despite the loss to Alberta. The Golden Bears take the number one ranking into the tournament, while the Huskies are seeded fifth.
Saskatchewan meets the #4 ranked Guelph Gryphons on Thursday (March 13th) at 1:00 in the afternoon. Joining Kozun as SJHL alumni with the Huskies are Levi Cable (limited action with Melfort and Melville before making the jump to the WHL), Alex Forsberg (Humboldt), Tanner Lishchynsky (Yorkton/Flin Flon), Layne Young (Battlefords), Kendall Fransoo (Battlefords), and Dakota Boutin (Melfort).
#1 ranked Alberta features Riley Kieser (Humboldt). #2 University of New Brunswick Reds has goaltenders Luke Lee-Knight (Humboldt/Battlefords) and Rylan Parenteau (Weyburn), #4 Guelph features Matt Kenney (Humboldt) #7 Carleton includes Dakota Odgers (Yorkton), while the host Lethbridge Pronghorns have SJHL alum Michael Grant (Nipawin) and Artsiom Kalashnikov (Nipawin). Rounding out the field are #3 Queens and #6 St. Francis Xavier.
It’s a 1 vs 8, and so-on, single knockout tournament with two games Thursday and two Friday, the semis Saturday and Bronze & Gold Medal Games Saturday at the Enmax Centre in Lethbridge, AB.