Bozak 'the real deal'

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:00 AM ET

When Ron Wilson tried to loosen up the Maple Leafs just before facing the Boston Bruins earlier this month, he singled out skinny Tyler Bozak and told him he must run 6-foot-9, 255-pound Zdeno Chara right from the faceoff.

"Tyler laughed along with everyone," Wilson said. "Then he went out and hit Chara."

Battling above his weight class and doing the unexpected is becoming a specialty of Bozak's, witness his grip on the coveted No. 1 centre's role. Yet it's the way the Regina native swims in the crowded Leafs fishbowl that's just as remarkable.

"You'd have to say he's everything we hoped he'd be and more," said senior advisor Cliff Fletcher, watching Bozak at Tuesday's morning skate. "Just look at the schedule he has had, playing in our (September) rookie tournament, looking good at training camp, playing with the Marlies, fighting through what might have been the H1N1 virus (losing 12 pounds he could ill afford). And now that our roster is as young as it is, he's getting the opportunity to fill a pretty big role."

With 10 points in his past 10 games before Tuesday, set between Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin, the only thing certain to stop Bozak is the NHL schedule, with just nine games remaining for the Leafs. But he's already talking about this summer being another huge step in his development, namely some badly needed weight gain.

Bozak was generously listed at 6-foot-1, 197 pounds by the Leafs at camp, meaning he must have grown an inch and added 35 pounds from his last measurements at the University of Denver. Whatever legitimate beef he put on in the summer was sapped by the flu, which forced his quarantine from fellow "Frat Pack" Marlies farmhands Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg.

Now that he's a full-time Leaf, the team has him on a strict nutritional and rest program, supervised by strength coach Anthony Belza.

"I was never big or wanted to work out that much," Bozak said. "In college, you were always rushing around, going to class, to practice and not eating the right foods. I didn't realize the toll it took on your body, not getting as many carbs, vegetables and protein as I could.

"I eat about six (structured) meals a day. Once you get into the season, you need a lot of carb intake and for all the energy you're expending out there. Anthony actually made me a week-by-week meal plan and I'm starting to get into cooking and enjoying it."

What he doesn't fatten up on here, his Ukrainian-born grandmother will take care of in his home province.

"My grandparents live in Moose Jaw and we have a family cabin nearby at Buffalo Pound Lake," Bozak said. "My brother and I are there all the time in summer. She's the best cook out there and we eat the perogies, cabbage rolls and all the traditional stuff at the holidays. She cooks for weeks and everyone munches out."

Bozak's hockey career would not be launched in Saskatchewan, however, but with Victoria of the BCJHL. His father Mitch knew the team's owner and all agreed on the benefits of the heavily scouted league. It had sheltered a young Brett Hull, whose name is on a scoring trophy Bozak won with 45 goals in 2006-07.

It was a ticket to a scholarship at Denver, where the late bloomer was WCHA rookie of the year and was on the radar of 30 NHL teams, despite an injury shortened 2008-09. He chose the most over-analyzed team in the NHL, but one looking for young guns.

"When I signed, people talked to me about all the pressure and all the media," Bozak said with a shrug. "I'm the same as (No. 1 pick) Nazem Kadri, I thrive upon it."

Not in the sense of frequenting the city's celeb hangouts, in fact it's part of his new regimen to be home early. But he, Hanson, Stalberg and Kessel are eager regulars at the theatre or the video rental store.

"We might become movie critics," Hanson joked. "We've seen every kind of movie that has been out, home and road. It's like college, young guys with the same agenda."

Wilson calls Bozak "the real deal" but will want to see how he responds at camp next season, when Kadri and others will challenge him and the surprise factor will be gone.

"We're fortunate that we didn't have to play him up in the NHL early this season," Wilson said of the Leafs being dead in the water. "He could have lost his confidence."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos