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Road to the Coliseum: Kyle Okposo

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
Kyle Okposo wasn’t born into the traditional hockey family that put their child on skates as soon as he could walk. The first time he laced up his skates, he was six-years-old and playing for the Capitals of the Highland Central Hockey Association.

“I wasn’t the best skater growing up,” Okposo said. “My parents didn’t know a ton about the sport, so I was just trying to learn on the fly. I played at an outdoor rink called Groveland (Recreation Center). I used to skate there at least four times a week.”

Though he had a late start, it didn’t take Okposo long to fall in love with the game.

Groveland Recreation Center is an outdoor rink in St. Paul, MN that Kyle Okposo frequented in his youth.
“The pick-up games, playing against local people - some played organized hockey, some didn’t - and those were the times when you really love the game and you play it in your purest form,” Okposo said. “I can just remember countless hours of being there and my parents coming at like 6 or 7 o’clock and telling them that I wanted to stay on the ice for a couple more hours, just working on stuff and having fun.”

At eight-years-old, Okposo joined a summer traveling team called the Minnesota Blades where he became teammates with current NHL defensemen Erik Johnson (Avalanche) and Jamie McBain (Hurricanes).

Eventually, the members of the team who were born in 1988 formed the Minnesota 88’s and only competed in tournaments. Most of the team, including Johnson, McBain and Peter Mueller (current Avalanche center) stayed together for the better part of seven years. In total, eight players from the 88’s ended up being drafted by NHL teams.

“We played in a ton of traveling tournaments and got to be pretty recognized,” Okposo said. “That summer we spent about three hours on the ice four days a week: an hour of skating, an hour of stick handling and an hour of passing. So that’s where I really developed and honed my skills.”

Okposo played for the 88’s until he turned 13, when he decided to make a drastic change.

“I actually quit organized hockey that year,” Okposo said. “I played football and basketball instead. After that year, I realized hockey was what I wanted to do. I picked it back up in the summer and decided to go to Shattuck (St. Mary’s for High School).”

Shattuck, a well-known preparatory school in Minnesota for students in grades 6-12, has one of the top youth hockey programs in the country. NHL stars like Sidney Crosby and Zach Parise are among today’s NHLers who have donned the Shattuck’s sweater.

But since it’s a boarding school, it comes with a high price tag.

“My parents were always very supportive,” Okposo said. “When I decided to go to Shattuck, it was a pretty huge financial obligation for them. They found a way to make it work and they supported me every step of the way. Whatever I needed, within reason, they tried to make it happen. I’m forever grateful for them helping me and supporting me throughout my dream.”

Kyle Okposo #21 of the New York Islanders gets past Joey Crabb #46 of the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 8, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
In that first year playing for Shattuck’s Bantam team (2002-03), Okposo spent more time on the ice than he was used to. He had 75 goals in just as many games and added 101 assists for 176 points. The following year he played varsity and totaled 99 points in 71 games. In his senior season, Okposo put up 92 points in 65 games.

“I had two great coaches there: JP Parise (who played four seasons with the Islanders from 1974-1978) and Tom Ward,” Okposo said. “They really developed me into the player that I am today and taught me some very valuable skills to use moving forward. I still talk to a ton of guys who went to school there. We have a pretty special relationship.”

At the end of his final year at Shattuck, Okposo traveled with USA Hockey to compete in the Five Nations Cup, which is where he became acquainted with Jack Capuano.

“I first got a chance to coach Kyle with USA Hockey when we went over to Slovakia,” Capuano said. “The one thing about Kyle, when we voted for captaincy, 98 percent of the votes were for Kyle. Right then and there, I knew what his teammates thought of him.”

By tournament’s end, he led Team USA with six goals and tied for the lead in points (9).

After graduation, Okposo moved to Iowa and played for the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League. He ranked second on the team and sixth in the league with 58 points (27g/31a) in 50 games, second on the team in goals and tied for second in assists. His success continued into the postseason as he was named the Clark Cup Playoff MVP, a USHL First Team All-Star and earned USHL Rookie of the Year honors.

That summer (2006), Okposo was selected by the Islanders seventh overall in the NHL Entry Draft. He decided to go the college route and became a member of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, where he finished second on the team with 40 points during his first season. He was named to the All-WCHA Second Team and WCHA All-Rookie Team as a result.

“I committed (to U. of Minnesota) when I was 16,” Okposo said. “It was something that I always wanted to do. I grew up as a St. Paul kid and I really wanted to play for them. When they offered me a scholarship and that dream became a reality, I was really excited about the opportunity. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
Kyle Okposo #21 of the New York Islanders skates against the Buffalo Sabres at the Nassau Coliseum on January 23, 2011 in Uniondale, New York. The Sabres won 5-3. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Okposo added, “It was nice to come home and play. I was playing in my hometown, so that was definitely a fun experience for me. After some time there and conversations with the Islanders, we decided it was time for me to turn pro.”

On Dec. 28, 2007, midway through his second season at Minnesota (7 goals, 4 assists in 18 games), Okposo signed an entry-level contract with the Islanders. He reunited with Capuano in Bridgeport and made his professional debut with the Sound Tigers after the New Year.

“College hockey is a great foundation for the kids, but I think when Kyle came out, he found out in a hurry that the conditioning level and the players that he was playing against were young men,” Capuano said. “They were bigger and stronger and he didn’t have as much time to react with he puck. Decisions had to be made quicker.”

At the time of his NHL debut, March 18, 2008, Okposo had 9 goals and 19 assists for 28 points with the Sound Tigers.

“You could see after the first month Kyle was with us that he became acclimated to the American League and he was a dominant player,” Capuano said. “I knew it was just a matter of time before I wasn’t going to see him anymore. He was ready to make that next jump.”

Okposo concluded his first pro season with nine NHL games. The following season (2008-09), he made the Islanders out of training camp and posted a team-leading 18 goals. The next year, he put up 19 goals. After last year’s injury reduced season, Okposo is looking to break that 20-goal plateau.

“He’s a very determined individual and I knew once he started playing, he was going to make that jump (to the NHL),” Capuano said. “And once he did, I thought he’d be a regular in the National League and be a 20-plus goal scorer… We’re expecting big things from Kyle this year.”

Even after inking a new contract to stay with the Islanders for five more seasons, Okposo is still in touch with his roots.

“Playing at Groveland, those are memories that I’ll never forget,” Okposo said. “That’s somewhere that I still go back to if I’m ever at home during the winter, over Christmas or something like that. I’ll go down to Groveland and skate. It’s a special place for me.”
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