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Minnesota at heart of many memories for Okposo

by Mike G. Morreale
Kyle Okposo believes the state of Minnesota is going to do all it can to make the 2011 NHL Entry Draft a memorable experience.

He should know. Born and raised in St. Paul -- just 10 minutes from the site of this year's draft at Xcel Energy Center -- Okposo is aware of how passionate the fans will be to host an NHL event of this magnitude.

"I think it'll be tremendous; the people will be ecstatic," Okposo told "There will be a lot of fans there and the people follow hockey closely. The Wild have a tremendous fan base and there will be a lot of interest. The state will react favorably and give the NHL a good audience."

Does he have any advice for those draft-eligible prospects?

"Two years ago, one of my friends (Jordan Schroeder of Burnsville, Minn.) slipped a little in the draft," Okposo said. "I texted him to tell him that he would play in the League a long time. Wherever he was going to go, I told him he'd be in a good situation and he ended up getting picked by Vancouver (22nd in 2009). If I could tell those prospects one thing, it would be to remember that the draft is simply a stepping stone -- you have to work hard wherever you go."

The Entry Draft will be held in The North Star State for the first time since 1989, when it took place at the Met Sports Center.

Okposo, who not only played high school hockey in Minnesota at Shattuck-St. Mary's but spent two years at the University of Minnesota, was part of the 2006 draft at General Motors Place in Vancouver. The 6-foot, 210-pound wing was taken with the seventh pick by the New York Islanders, a moment he'll never forget.

"It was a cool, fun day," Okposo said. "I just remember waiting to hear my name called and feeling pretty nervous, and I just kept saying to myself that it was just a stepping stone. It was obviously really exciting to be part of an organization, but I didn't really know a whole lot about it. I knew I was going to go to college and I just wanted to get better and try and make it with the Islanders."

And he did. If not for a right shoulder injury that sidelined him four months, Okposo would probably be close to notching career high totals across the board this season. After all, he set personal standards with 19 goals, 33 assists and 52 points in his second full season on Long Island in 2009-10.

Since returning to the lineup in January, Okposo has produced 4 goals, 16 points and a career-best plus-10 rating.

"Obviously, I missed four months with the shoulder, but to then watch the team go through what they did earlier in the season was definitely tough," said Okposo, referring to the Islanders 1-17-3 slide earlier in the year.

"When I came back, it was hard because you're not in midseason form like everybody else in the League at that point. To come back from that is a tough thing to do, but lately it's been better. The team is playing well and my line (with left wing Michael Grabner and center Frans Nielsen) especially has been playing well. The team is starting to win games."

Really, Grabner and Nielsen are grateful to be skating alongside Okposo.

"He was obviously hurt and I didn't really see him play too much in person, but he's really good with the puck, has good hands and he's obviously really strong in the corners," Grabner said. "I'm just trying to make some room and he will find me if I get to open spots. I think just him coming back gave our team a little boost. Everyone was excited. He's a great guy in the locker room, a good leader, and I think when he returned, that's when we started to get on a roll, too."

The Islanders have gone 13-9-4 since Okposo's return to the lineup.

"Oki is a solid two-way player," Nielsen said. "I think (our line) supports each other good out there. They definitely make it easier for me. I know I don't have to worry if they come back first, they can both play down low. I think all three of us are pretty good all-round players."

Prior to playing for the Gophers and head coach Don Lucia, Okposo also spent a year in the United States Hockey League with the Des Moines Buccaneers. Okposo had 27 goals, 58 points and a plus-28 rating in 50 games with Des Moines in 2005-06 and was named the most valuable player of the USHL playoffs and the league's top rookie en route to leading the Buccaneers to the Clark Cup.

"I think (the USHL) is a really great league and no one really mentions it as often as it should be mentioned when they talk about the top junior leagues in North America," he said. "Everyone knows the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but the USHL was a good stepping stone for me. It's good for American and Canadian players who want to come down and eventually play in college."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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