For the Kozlaks, 'It's Changed Our Lives'
by Jashvina Shah/Staff Writer
When Joe and Scott Kozlak were just young boys, the Kozlak family moved to Duluth, Minn. Like many Minnesota children, the brothers were engulfed in the hockey culture.
“It was one of those things where that’s just what the kids did and it was just amazing,” Joe’s father, Joel Kozlak said. “That was where they just kind of got a love of the game, was going down to the rink at Congdon Park in Duluth. They would get their homework done and they would head down to the rink and stay there as long as they could.”
Hockey led both boys to junior leagues, and sent Joe Kozlak to West Point — where he’s now a captain of the hockey team, as well as the team’s only two-sport member.
When Kozlak was a sophomore with Army hockey, the golf team had lost a couple of players. Golf coach Brian Watts contacted Army’s head coach, Brian Riley, asking if Kozlak — a former high school golfer — would try out. Kozlak did, and made the team.
“It’s relaxing to practice,” Kozlak said. “I like competing, I think competing in golf brings out my best.”
As a golfer, Kozlak has experienced the Army-Navy rivalry — which saw almost 100 fans at the golf course when the teams met.
“If you’re not on the hockey team no one really cares about Air Force that much because everybody here is 'Beat Navy,'” Kozlak said. “When people are telling me to beat Navy, I’m like 'I don’t really care about Navy, [we have] to beat Air Force.' So it’s different in that the school doesn’t understand the rivalry with hockey and Air Force, and the rivalry with Navy, everybody’s behind it.”
While beating Air Force is important to Kozlak, the AFA is the reason Kozlak found his way to West Point.
The Military Path
Joe’s older brother, Scott, was playing his second year of junior hockey — split between the USHL and NAHL — when Air Force first showed interest. But Scott Kozlak wasn’t sure he wanted to attend Air Force, so he declined.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to go into something thinking that I’m going to quit,’ “ Joel Kozlak said.
Scott kept declining, but Joe was intrigued by the opportunity.
"I think I was more excited than he,” Joe said. “He was kind of hesitant at first. I was really excited. I thought it was a cool opportunity.”
Other schools became options, but Scott wasn’t excited about those, either. Air Force remained committed, and head coach Frank Serratore visited Scott just before the end of his junior hockey career.
“He tells Scott, ‘We really want you to come play here and we think you do a great things,’“ Joe said. “Scott looks him in the eye and goes, ‘Okay I’m ready to commit.’ And Serraotrre looked back at him and said, ‘Are you sure?’“
Joe was a senior in high school when Scott finally said yes to Air Force. Enthralled by the opportunity of a great education and hockey, Joe considered attending a military academy.
The Kozlak family visited Scott at Air Force, where the elder brother played in the NCAA tournament as a freshman. After observing the culture at Air Force, Joe ultimately settled on West Point for the team’s storied history and a hockey program dating to 1904.
“I wanted to make a difference out here at West Point on the hockey team, I want to turn this into a winning program,” Joe said.
Now, seven years after Scott’s freshman campaign at Air Force, the Kozlaks have become a military family. Joe is just a year away from graduating, while Scott is a member of the Air Force.
“There’s just no military background in our family,” Joel said. “I think hockey kind of led him that way, and it has been a blessing from both the hockey standpoint, the education and these two guys serving their countries.
“It’s changed our lives.”
Life in the Academy
For cadets, college life is schedule to the last hour. It’s rigorous for all attendees, and even more so for Division I athletes. For Joe Kozlak, golf is layered over hockey and academics.
Since hockey is Kozlak’s primary sport, the cadet runs to the golf course after practice to take some swings before darkness. He returns home and finishes homework just before sleep.
“You don’t have time to do anything else, so it’s just really time management,” Kozlak said.
Kozlak’s parents, Joel and Jane, have visited both Air Force Academy and West Point to see their sons play.
“It’s not your normal college experience,” Joel said. “There’s so much more going on than just school, there’s the whole military piece, this whole commitment that when they get done there they’re going to serve their country. It’s just about the team, it’s about being a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Joel said dropping Scott and Joe off as freshmen, almost five years apart, was hard.
“The thing that amazes me as I look back and looking at this is how they teach leadership,” Joel said. “It’s the team, it’s the unit it’s everything before themselves.”
Scott, who graduated in 2011, is now a first lieutenant with the Air Force. Joe, a junior, will find out where he will be stationed his senior year.
“[It’s] always in the back of my mind, what does that mean being in the military, could you be in harm’s way,” Joel said.
“We’ve had the opportunity to go and meet these kids and find out how lucky we are to have all these kids committing to us. … You see the love of their county and of what their job is, you just kind of come to understand that this is what they were called to do.”
The Cow Captain
When Joe Kozlak was in high school, he played golf and hockey. He participated in the state’s golf tournament twice, but struggled to find playing time at Duluth Marshall High School.
“He barely played in high school until he was a senior and he just had this desire to play hockey,” Joel said.
After high school, Kozlak still wanted to play hockey. He joined the Amarillo Bulls of the NAHL, and parlayed his time into a spot with Army. His freshman year, he was named the AHA All-Rookie team.
“He just kept on working and working and working and somehow made it happen,” Joel said. “It was just pure determination and he got himself stronger and he worked on his skills.”
Now Kozlak, a mathematical sciences major, is a Cow — or junior — captain for the Black Knights, and is fourth on the team in scoring with 12 points. As a freshman, Kozlak netted 17, and his 20 points last season were second on the team.
“It’s been really fun to watch because he was not always the most talented, but he was the hardest worker, most dedicated and probably the best teammates anybody could ever have,” Joel said.
With Joe dressing for Army, the Kozlaks — former Air Force fans — are now committed to cheering on West Point.
“We were very lucky the boys never played against each other,” Joel said.
“Who knows what it’s going to be when Joe’s done, but we’ll continue to follow them both and we follow them both right now, both. You’re just proud of all those kids that are playing and you wish them all well.”