They say habits form only after constant effort and for third-year Utah Grizzlies forward Justin Cox, working hard is now a natural part of life.
Cox, who is among the Grizzlies leaders this season in goals and points, is in some ways the same energetic player that fans watched and fell in love with back in his 2001-02 rookie season.
However, Cox has transformed in recent years, going from a small, driven player taken in the sixth round of the 1999 National Hockey League draft to a serious threat who could make his NHL debut in 2004.
This transformation began when the Merritt, B.C., native was a star in junior playing four seasons with Prince George of the Western Hockey League. This same team produced other professionals such as Tyler Bouck, Zdeno Chara, Blair Betts and Chris Mason. Prince George is a town of about 80,000 people, all of which live and die by the side of their beloved Cougars.
“Everything was different in juniors,” said Cox. “You were recognized all around town and everyone knew who you were and how you did at the rink the night before. It had its disadvantages too because off the ice you were never allowed to make a mistake being under such a microscope but I think that helps a young person learn discipline.”
After putting together numbers that got him noticed and a style of play that made scouts nod their head in approval, Cox was ready to think of a career outside of juniors. In his career with Prince George, Cox netted 73 goals with 93 assists in 264 games. He knew that at 18-years-old he would have the opportunity to improve and perhaps even get drafted in the next year’s selection.
“Some friends and teammates got together and I got a call from my agent saying I had been drafted,” Cox remembered about the day that instantly changed his life. “The Stars were one of the few teams that showed a lot of interest and after a meeting I had with them in Toronto I figured if I was going to get picked it would be by Dallas.”
After being drafted he completed his career with Prince George and worked on gaining the skills necessary to compete at the next level.
“I worked really hard at getting bigger and learning and developing the skills I would need to be successful,” said Cox. “I started following … the American Hockey League closely to see who I might be playing against and to see who the other players in the Stars system were.”
His first year with the Stars’ affiliate in Utah was one that showed promise to the Dallas brass. It also showed the Grizzlies faithful what flying body checks were all about. Cox scored 10 goals and had 17 points in his rookie season in the AHL but it was an event outside the American League that changed him.
During his inaugural campaign, Cox was told he was deviating from what he needed to do to be a positive player on the ice. The result was a demotion to the Central Hockey League.
“It was a wake-up call for sure,” shrugged Cox. “It made me realize that I wasn’t going to be the type of professional that I was as a junior. There was a way I was going to have to do things to be contributing to the Grizzlies and to ultimately get my shot. Not everyone can wheel out on the ice like Wayne Gretzky. The good teams have players that know their roles and I learned mine.”
Year Two saw Cox bulk up some in the off-season and come to camp ready to go. His trash talking ways that accompanied him growing up and with Prince George were still present but now he had a little more bulk to back up the talk. In Grizzlies training camp, another instigator needed to be put in his place and during an intra-squad scrimmage Cox dropped the gloves and gave the rookie a lesson.
That second year was perhaps Cox’s most difficult offensively, especially after a rookie season that saw him reach double-digits in goals. Cox would not get the monkey off his back and score a goal until March 21 (he finished the year with three markers). This season, Cox had seven goals by December 23. He finished the 2002-03 season with three goals and 12 assists in 53 games, 21 less than he played in his rookie year. Three separate injuries hampered Cox all season long as he missed 24 games and the playoffs.
Walking through the door of Grizzlies training camp this season a new person emerged for the team. Cox was a more confident player, even a leader. The third-year player, now wearing an ‘A’ on his sweater, would be looked up to as a player on the ice and as a person off the ice.
“I think you just reach a point were you figure some things out,” analyzed Cox. “I am still the same person and player but things are a little simpler. You do need to work as hard but I think the figuring out comes from knowing how you’ve developed and what type of player on the ice you’ll be. If you give that effort and strive to play that same way each and every night than you have gotten somewhere.”
As for the National Hockey League dream, Cox has this perspective.
“I can only take care of things on the ice and to worry about things out of my control would be useless. As long as my play keeps people thinking that maybe I have a shot someday than I must be doing something right. It is when they stop thinking I can do it, that’s when I’m done and hopefully that day will never come.”