MASON CITY, Iowa – His hometown is a city of more than 320,000 on the outskirts of the largest city in Canada.
He ended his junior hockey career right at home in a town a fraction of the size, on the outskirts of…Minnesota.
North Iowa goaltender Kyle Kozma’s junior hockey story begins in Vaughan, Ontario, part of the Greater Toronto Area and just 12 miles from the waterfront of Lake Ontario. That story begins with a brief sojourn through Canadian junior “A” leagues in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba. The longest stretch on that journey with any one team took him through Virden, Manitoba, winning 13 games with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Oil Capitals in 2019-20. When the COVID-19 pandemic north of the border abated enough for a return to the ice, Kozma picked up right where he left off, winning six more games in 2020-21.
It didn’t last.
“In November, we got put on hold, and they kept pushing it back and back, and in January, they eventually canceled the season,” he said. “A team in Utah reached out to me and asked, ‘Would you like to come down here and finish the season, and take us into the playoffs?’ I went down there, was there for six weeks, won the division and made it all the way to our national tournament. It was a great experience.”
When the 2021-22 season began, Kozma finally reached the North American Hockey League, playing for a team in the Central Division in a smaller city, with aspirations of playing on the season’s final day just as it had the previous year.
No, we’re not quite to the Bulls’ portion of this story yet. Kozma’s start came with the Aberdeen Wings, who had won 51 games the previous season and made it all the way to the NAHL’s Robertson Cup final before falling to the Shreveport Mudbugs.
Kozma started nicely in the Hub City, winning two games for the Wings and posting a .914 save percentage with a 2.53 goals-against average. He even played twice against North Iowa in the first weekend of divisional play, making 23 saves the first night in a 3-2 win before taking a 6-5 loss in relief the following night.
At the end of October, he was headed to the Minnesota Magicians, where he would win three more games. Then, as the roster deadline approached, he made his final stop, landing with the Bulls.
“I got settled in right away, got right into practicing, and played at the end of my first week here,” said Kozma. “It was real easy to get adjusted to everything here.”
That first game put Bulls fans – and opposing teams – on notice, with Kozma making 25 saves in a 3-2 win at the Austin Bruins, on the Bruins’ annual Pink the Rink Night in front of the team’s largest crowd of the season, in perhaps the most heated matchup of the year between the teams.
“It was a big game for me,” said Kozma. “I hadn’t played in a month, and I was injured for most of January. That was a crazy first game, but I’m glad we came out on top, and I definitely settled down after that.”
Just one more win followed, but he says he felt right at home in places like Mason City and Aberdeen, whose population is virtually identical to that of Mason City. While the River City is the 16th-largest city in Iowa, his hometown is one of Canada’s fastest-growing cities, twice the size it was just 30 years ago. By comparison, Des Moines itself – Iowa’s largest city – is just two-thirds the size of Vaughan.
“For junior hockey, playing in these small towns where it’s a tight community is really good,” said Kozma. “You get a lot of support from the community, and you get to interact with the fans outside of the rink. To have 1,000-plus people in this building every night is pretty special. Not a lot of teams have that.”
Kozma’s next big decision is already made, announcing his commitment to Trine University in Indiana earlier this month. Though the program has only been around for five years, it’s a rising star on the NCAA Division III landscape after posting 19 wins this past season and reaching the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association’s Harris Cup semifinals. All three goaltenders who appeared in a game were underclassmen, either freshmen or sophomores.
“It’s why I’ve been playing juniors for the last three years, is to go to college and finally take that step to the next level,” said Kozma. “I’m really excited for it. I ended up in a good spot. I’m glad I could finish my career here.”