Another Step Towards Stardom: Rising Star Kyle Okposo

Kyle Okposo Looks To Build On His Breakout Season With The Upstart Islanders
By: 
Allan Kreda

Long before he was a rising star on the St. Paul, Minn., youth hockey scene, before dominating at one of the country’s top prep schools, before running roughshod through the ranks of Junior hockey, and before his cameo on collegiate ice, Kyle Okposo’s potential for greatness was evident to his Dad.
   
From an early age, Kome Okposo saw something in his only son, a fierce competitive drive and an exacting nature that has long been witnessed across the hockey spectrum and is now on display with the New York Islanders.
   
The son of a Nigerian father and American mother, Okposo was a standout at every level of the game, from Shattuck-St. Mary’s, to the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League and at the University of Minnesota.
   
“It was obvious Kyle always wanted to be the best,” says the elder Okposo, senior medical director of a Chicago-based biotech firm. “He always had a special determination, so it’s absolutely great to see it all coming together for him. The maturation process is awesome for Kyle as a player and as a person.”
   
The Islanders liked what they saw in the young power forward enough to make him the seventh overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. But that maturation didn’t reach its high-water mark until last season, an exceptionally frustrating campaign with the Islanders, who finished last in the new Metropolitan Division. Among the few notable bright spots for the franchise was the play of the 26-year-old right winger, who led the team with 27 goals and 69 points.
   
Playing much of the season on the first line centered by John Tavares, Okposo was in stride following a standout performance in his first playoff experience in May 2013 when the young Islanders lost a hard-fought series to the conference-best Pittsburgh Penguins.
   
For Okposo, that playoff series against the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin was a turning point in his six-year NHL career. He scored three goals and even earned his first NHL fighting major in a skirmish with Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen.
   
“To have the playoff impact that I did was an eye opener for me’’ recalls the soft-spoken Okposo. “The intensity was ratcheted up and it was special and fun to see how excited the fans were at Nassau Coliseum. It was so loud. We were all thrilled to be part of it.”

From an early age, Kyle Okposo has stood head and shoulders above the competition. In addition to leading the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League to a Clark Cup title, Okposo has been a standout on two U.S. National Junior Teams and tFrom an early age, Kyle Okposo has stood head and shoulders above the competition. In addition to leading the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League to a Clark Cup title, Okposo has been a standout on two U.S. National Junior Teams and t

Okposo fits well with these close-knit Islanders, and his leadership goes beyond just the assistant captain “A” he wears on his jersey. Never was that more evident than when the team’s fortunes faltered last season and a rookie-heavy roster continued to play competitively.
   
 “You want the leaders of your team to be an extension of your coaching staff,” says head coach Jack Capuano, who is starting his fifth season behind the Islanders bench. “I coached Kyle with his U.S. Under-18 [Select] Team in Slovakia, and [I] had him in Bridgeport. I always knew he had the leadership qualities and the character to be a leader in the NHL.

“It’s real important to have a guy who has the trust of his teammates and the coaches. Kyle is that guy.”

Okposo elevated his game even more following his well-documented exclusion from the U.S. Olympic Team heading to Sochi, Russia. The Islanders hosted Chicago in early January and Okposo made sure his critics noticed, playing a dynamic game capped by scoring the winner against the defending Stanley Cup champions 58 seconds into overtime.
   
That sparked the Nassau Coliseum crowd to loudly chant “USA, USA!” – nearly drowning out Okposo’s post-game on-ice interview. It proved to be an event Okposo admits he will never forget.
   
“That was probably the biggest goal of my career and definitely a great motivating factor,’’ says Okposo, who has suited up for the U.S. twice at World Juniors and in three World Championships. “I wished those guys nothing but the best in Sochi, but I really would loved to have been on that team. For sure that feeling pushed me the rest of the season.”

“He wasn't going to be defeated and we all saw that from Kyle”

- Doug Weight, Islanders Assistant Coach

Tavares, who set up Okposo’s winner, was equally impressed and proud.
   
“It was fitting to see Kyle put that one in,’’ the Islanders captain said after the game. “I think he sent a message with that one.”
   
That message resonated through the rest of the season, especially after Tavares sustained a season-ending knee injury during Canada’s gold-medal run in Sochi. Okposo essentially took the Islanders on his broad shoulders the rest of the way, yet another vital learning experience for him and the myriad of youngsters on the squad.
   
Islanders assistant coach Doug Weight, now also the team’s assistant GM, believes the entire episode will pay greater dividends in 2014-15, the team’s last season in Nassau County before moving to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.

“He wasn’t going to be defeated and we all saw that from Kyle,’’ says Weight, a two-decade NHL veteran who represented the United States in three Winter Olympics. “Combining battle level, skill and youthfulness, Kyle has all the tools. He’s taken a step on the way to stardom and his character and work ethic helps everyone on our team.”
   
Weight said there was initial concern among the coaching staff of how Okposo would handle his Olympic disappointment, but through hard work and perservence he used it as motivation to show the hockey world what he can do.
   
“As ridiculous as I thought it was – he was fourth in the league in scoring – he had to be smart and go out and have the results he had,’’ Weight adds. “He was hurting but certainly we had his back. Kyle proved a lot to himself and to all of us.”
   
Okposo displays the same calm demeanor he has since his first year on Long Island. Measured, focused and direct, he’s always a welcome postgame voice. The journey to this career juncture is meaningful to the thoughtful Okposo, who became a father for the first time in early January when his wife Danielle gave birth to their daughter Elliana.

 

“I’ve gone through a lot of up and downs, and Garth and Charles have allowed me to grow as a player and person,’’ Okposo says, referring to the team’s GM Garth Snow and owner Charles Wang.
“They could have said my time was done and I would be moving on but they didn’t. They stuck with me, so it definitely means a lot to be drafted in 2006 and stay here. It’s been a good ride that can only get better.”
   
For teammate Colin McDonald, a hard-working winger as well, Okposo’s nose-to-the-grindstone mindset helps the entire squad reach for a higher level every night.
   
“To have one of your best players work as hard as he does motivates not only myself, but everyone else on the team,’’ says McDonald, a key contributor for the Islanders the past two seasons who also represented the United States at the World Championships in Belarus this May.
   
“Before my time with the Islanders, I heard about his talent but to experience it firsthand and to see how dedicated Kyle is to his game definitely motivates me to bring that same work ethic to my game.”
   
It’s a model the Islanders expect will help them flourish this season with a fresh cast. With a healthy Tavares back at the forefront, the Islanders added veteran forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin and have rising talent up front such as Anders Lee, Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson, who could be the left wing on the top line with Okposo and Tavares.
   
“We’re in a good place as a team, and I know we got better this summer,’’ Okposo says. “Everyone on our club wants to succeed, and a lot of that is because we’ve grown up playing together.”

Okposo is banking that his best is yet to come.

For me, it’s about really pushing myself and focusing on what it takes to be successful in the NHL,” he says. “I’ve made conscious changes because I want to be the best player I can be.”

Kome Okposo, whose path of hard work and dedication set the right example for Kyle and his sister Kendra, admits he’s grateful that his career approach proved fruitful for the next generation.     

“I always thought if I succeeded, there would be a much better chance for them to succeed,” he says. “And thinking about that game against Chicago when Kyle scored in overtime and the Islander fans were chanting ‘USA, USA,’ that still gives me chills. For me, that was the greatest moment. It made me so proud.”

 

 

 

Allan Kreda covers the N.Y. Islanders for The New York Times.
Photos By  USHL; USA Hockey Magazine Archives; Getty Images
Issue: 
2014-10

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