SCHENECTADY — Early last February, on the road, coming off a lousy loss the night before ...
The Union College men's hockey team trudged into Hanover, New Hampshire, for a game at Thompson Arena against Dartmouth College.
Dutchmen forward Josh Kosack, then a sophomore, performed his usual pre-game drill, high-fiving or chatting up a young fan near the tunnel to the locker room during warmups, and as the team came on and off the ice.
On this night, that fan was Patrick Toner, a teenager with Down syndrome who was there with his parents only because some friends couldn't make it and didn't want their tickets to go to waste. The Toners had never been to a hockey game, any hockey game.
Kosack gave Patrick a practice puck and a high-five, and boldly predicted a Union win.
"There was a little pressure," Kosack said with rueful chuckle.
The new pals kept it up through the intermissions, and in the afterglow of a 3-1 Union win, it occurred to Kosack that there was something bigger going on here.
"Who knew a high five between 2 people could create the effect it has?" Patrick's mom, Jennifer, said in an email last week.
What sprang from that encounter on a cold night at a cold rink away from home was "Kozi's Kids," a project Kosack has expanded this season to maintain not only a direct but a continuous impact on young kids in Schenectady. He was among the Union players who made school visits to Yates, Van Corlaer and Hamilton elementary schools during the three-week trimester holiday break, but also created Kozi's Kids to be his personal season-long branch of the overall community services that the various Union athletic programs provide.
Toward that end, Kosack has gathered unused game tickets and food concession vouchers, and distributed them to city school kids. He has brought them into the locker room and meets with them after the games to answer questions, and show them a little bit of what life is like for a college student who also happens to play hockey.
Kosack has Feb. 28 circled on his calendar — so does Patrick Toner — when the Dutchmen return to Dartmouth. In the meantime, though, the Kozi's Kids program has been connecting with kids at Messa Rink pretty much every home weekend since the beginning of the season in October.
"If I see a young kid, I’ll throw them a puck or something like that," Kosack said. "When we were at Dartmouth, that one really hit home. I was like, ‘Why don’t I do something more with this?’"
"It was a great opportunity for us, because otherwise they usually wouldn't have access to hockey games," said Will Rivas, who chaperones Kozi's Kids to the games as the executive director of COCOA House, a Schenectady-based community outreach group. "A lot of them don't know anything about hockey, even the parents, so they're all experiencing this together.
"He tells them to follow their dreams. That's why he plays hockey. I let him answer the hockey questions. I explain to them that it's a big school. ... And I explain to them that that could be them. That that's an aspiration."
Kosack — a junior wing on Union's checking line from Oakville, Ontario, just ouside of Toronto — has been working with kids for five years, helping out at summer camps teaching the young ones how to skate and older ones how to play hockey.
By the time head coach Rick Bennett named him co-alternate captain early this season, Kosack — an economics major who has been named to the ECAC Hockey all-academic team twice — had Kozi's Kids in gear, with COCOA (Children of Our Community Open to Achievement) House as a natural conduit. The community outreach program based on Stanley Street in Hamilton Hill was founded by a Union student in 1996 and continues to use volunteers from the college as mentors and tutors.
Players are allotted tickets for each game, but since Kosack's family only makes it down from Ontario four or five times a season, many tickets were going to waste. Realizing that many teammates' families were also not always making it to games — Union's players hail from as far west as British Columbia and as far east as Sweden — Kosack gathered the surplus and offered them to people who could use them, kids just a few miles away who may never have set foot on campus.
"Most of the people who come to games have never been before, so just exposing them to a different crowd is important," said Kosack, whose team plays at home Friday vs. Harvard and Saturday vs. Dartmouth. "It’s been fun for me, and I hope it’s been fun for them.
"People see what you do on the ice; it’s more important what you do off the ice, I think. Hockey is a pedestal for us, but I think you can be a much better person in the community giving back."
Not long after Kozi's Kids started coming to games, a COCOA House regular named Tavion, 8, started the "Josh Watch." Wherever No. 27 goes during his shifts on the ice, the Josh Watch eyes follow.
The investment goes both ways, so if Kosack gets blasted by a body check, Josh Watch takes note, and expresses their disapproval.
"They actually got upset when he got sent to the penalty box," Rivas said. "When Josh gets hit, Tavion says, 'Ooh, they hit Josh too hard.'"
Patrick Toner is the original Josh Watcher.
He just turned 18, attends high school as a student with special needs in Springfield, Vermont, and lives with his family, who nicknamed him "Dude," about a half-hour south of Dartmouth.
He's got his Kosack jersey ready, and the Toners have hand-made "We Love #27" signs started in anticipation of Feb. 28. Patrick's mom was so thrilled by the connection her son made with Kosack last February that she immediately posted a letter of appreciation through Facebook to the Union men's hockey page. A few weeks later, Kosack replied to tell the Toners that he planned to launch Kozi's Kids.
"Patrick was over-the-moon thrilled," Jennifer Toner wrote in the letter. "Josh is leading by example with his actions, and has restored my faith in people."
"That touched me, where you can have a big impact outside the game, not just what you do on the ice," Kosack said. "That’s the biggest thing I took away from it.
"I remember going to Oakville Blades games — and I ended up playing for them — but going to those games, I see these kids banging on the glass and you give them a wave and they freak out — that was me.
"It puts in perspective what effect you can have on other people. That’s the biggest thing, giving back. There’s nothing better than putting a smile on a kid’s face. Win, lose, it’s all about being a good person and being better."