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Kozun making a big impression

TORONTO -- Exactly 324 AHL games later, Los Angeles native Brandon Kozun finally gets to play NHL game No. 1.

In an opening-night affair featuring hockey's royalty, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, no less.

"It's crazy," Kozun said on the eve of the NHL's curtain-raiser. "It'll probably sink in more when we get closer to game time."

You want to talk about training camp surprises? There's no way anybody in the Leafs' organization had the 24-year-old Kozun penciled in on the opening-night roster when camp began last month, never mind starting on the second line with Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul.

But proving that they meant what they said, the Leafs' management promised a camp where jobs were open, and they weren't kidding.

"The one thing that he has demonstrated from day one is that he's going to have that dogged work ethic," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said Tuesday after practice. "His speed is definitely very noticeable. It was noticeable at the American Hockey League level; now the true test is going to come if that speed is going to be as noticeable at the NHL level against bigger, stronger, faster players."

This is indeed the true test now. There are great September stories every season around the NHL -- players nobody saw coming who make rosters -- but whether they're still on the big club come November is another question.

But you'd hate to bet against this guy. He's been questioned all his life because of his size -- 5-foot-8 and 167 pounds (he looks smaller in person) -- and all he's done is light it up everywhere he's gone, from the Western Hockey League's Calgary Hitmen (2006-07 through 2009-10) to the AHL's Manchester Monarchs (2010-11 to 2013-14).

He went unclaimed in his first year of eligibility for the NHL draft in 2008 before the Los Angeles Kings took him the next year, in the sixth round, 179th overall.

Obviously, on a Kings team so stacked and with so many players going through the system, Kozun knew he'd likely need a trade to get his break. But he's grateful for what the Kings did for him.

"Their development staff is elite," said Kozun. "They've done a very good job, and I think you can see the amount of players that they have developed and brought into the NHL. Honestly, if it wasn't for that, I probably would never be in this position. I am the player that I am today because of some coaches in that organization. I owe them a lot."

He mentioned Kings development guys Nelson Emerson, Mike Donnelly and Mike O'Connell, among others.

"Those guys were huge for developing me," said Kozun. "Obviously, the coaches in Manchester as well. There are lots of people in that organization I owe a lot to."

His break would come when the Kings traded him to the Leafs in January in exchange for center Andrew Crescenzi; Kozun played the rest of the season with the AHL Marlies.

Just as Linden Vey needed a trade from the Kings' organization to the Vancouver Canucks in June to get his shot at an NHL job, Kozun clearly has benefited from joining an organization where there are winds of change, not just related to the roster but to how the Leafs want to play the game.

There's no greater proof of that than the fact that tough guys Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren were demoted to the AHL this week while a speedster such as Kozun got a shot.

"He is real fast and has courage to go to the net for a player his size," said a Western Conference team executive who watched Kozun play in the AHL a fair bit the last few years. "Doesn't surprise me that a team is giving him a chance."

Kozun had to earn it with a tremendous camp and preseason.

"He stood out to me, and obviously to the coaches and management, right from the first day of camp," said Lupul. "I didn't know anything about him; I had never seen him play. But I did notice him the first day of camp and pretty much every day since.

"He brings some speed, but he's really tenacious too," continued Lupul. "Just because you're small doesn't mean you can't forecheck and be a factor physically. He did that in preseason. But tomorrow is a different game and he knows it's going to be a bit more of a challenge; everyone is going to crank up the intensity. For him, he's got to look at it -- and I think he is -- as a starting point, not the end point. He's a guy that's going to have to work hard and improve every day. But he brings something that no one else in here can probably bring, other than maybe Phil [Kessel], just having that speed that every shift can be a game-breaker. It's fun to watch, and I'm going to enjoy playing with him."

Kozun has been wearing No. 67 since he got here. Someone didn't do him any favors there, right? I mean, that's a number that grates at the souls of long-suffering Leafs fans, since their team hasn't won the Stanley Cup since that fabled year.

"I just came to the rink and that was the number given to me," Kozun said, chuckling. "To be honest right now, I'm not going to complain about anything."

What a journey it's been so far for Kozun, who played minor hockey when he was "4 or 5 years old" with Ty Gretzky, son of The Great One. At age 10, Kozun moved with his mother from Los Angeles to Calgary, where his mom's family is from. His parents are divorced.

"I'm really close to my grandmother," said Kozun. "We moved out there to Calgary to be closer to her. But maybe a little bit of a hockey reason too; I know hockey is big in Southern California now, but it's obviously even bigger in Calgary. That helped me develop into the player I am."

His father and older brother live in San Diego, so there were trips to SoCal over the years as well. Kozun said he wouldn't mind buying a place in San Diego one day. Heck of a place to live. A few NHL paychecks will help in that regard.

It all starts Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, where his mom and girlfriend will be on hand as well as Kozun's brother and his girlfriend. The pint-sized winger from L.A. via Calgary is going to prove a lot of people wrong Wednesday night -- while also proving himself right.