Thursday, May 9, 2013

Okposo more than a little present under the Christmas Tree

By Larry Wigge

Some players develop automatically. Others take their time. But ... they appear in on the moment.

Those are the best kind that kind of matriculate into your everyday lineup.

Take Kyle Okposo. A first-round pick, seventh overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

In his most productive season ever with the New York Islanders, Okposo had 24 goals. Young teams need plus players who can score. But, his 2012-13 season fell off. He had four goals and 20 assists in 48 games.

What was wrong the young fellow from St. Paul? Nothing ...

He poured in three goals and one assist in his first four playoff games as the Isles had the superior Pittsburgh Penguins tied in their first round series at two games apiece.

Funny thing, his first playoff record came in his first NHL fight -- first in six seasons. Okposo stood up of teammate Matt Moulson after Pittsburgh dumped his unceremoniously. 

First came Okposo's right fist came first ... his stick came later.

"I think Okie really fired us up with the fight," said Moulson.

The Islanders rallied from a two-goal deficit and carried them to their first team playoff playoff, a 4-3 decision over the Penguins May 2. It was the first home victory for the Islanders since 2002.

The deciding goal came off Okposo's stick ... but the shot hit the backboards and came out in front of the net. Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury -- misplayed it and actually put it into the net.

"He's a very humble guy," said coach Jack Capuano said of Okposo. "He's mature. He comes from a good family. He's a good guy -- a captain-like guy. He's a leader. We know he's a high-profile guy, but he knows he's going to have to work hard."

Like Iginla, Okposo is of Nigerian descent, on his father's side. Kome Okposo immigrated to the United States alone when he was 16. Kyle Okposo said he started playing hockey at about age 7 because his friends did.

"I raised him to be him -- to be himself and to pursue his passion, which happens to be hockey," Kome Okposo said.

I always love stories that have a hint of conflict, and that's exactly the case with this one, because Okposo left the game early in his career. Toss in some multicultural backgrounds and lifestyles and you have plenty of ironic twists to deal with.

It's not as hard to give up a year of hockey when you're 6 to play basketball and then rebound to achieve such a high ranking like Okposo did.

When Okposo was 6, he switched to basketball, partly as punishment for knocking down the family Christmas tree with a puck, infuriating his parents, who weren't big on their son playing hockey to begin with.  Kome, grew up in Nigeria as a star soccer player before coming to the United States at 16 and his mom, Michele, grew up in Minnesota and was a pretty decent tennis player.

"I think we tried everything possible to discourage him from playing hockey," Kome laughed after watching his son get drafted by the Islanders.

Are you beginning to get that multicultural feel yet?

Kome Okposo added: "We gave in and bought Kyle a pair of skates and some sticks, hoping that he still might play soccer. But we couldn't get him away from hockey other than the year that Michele grounded him from hockey for knocking down the Christmas tree.

"I wouldn't tell my wife this, but Kyle won me over to his playing hockey when he was little. It was fun watching him. You could see he had a passion for the game, and look at the results. I would never have written a story that ended with him being drafted by an NHL team. Never."

When the Okposos finally relented and let Kyle go back to his first love, the ultra-competitive kid would ask his parents to drop him off at a nearby St. Paul outdoor rink, with orders to give him at least three or four hours to skate and find a pickup game to play. He spent his high school career skating for Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, Minn., and posted an amazing 175 points his freshman season on the Bantam Tier I team. He followed that with 100-point sophomore and junior seasons.

He had  27 goals 58 points in 50 games for for Des Moines and was named USHL Rookie of the Year.

"When they drop the puck, I feel like I'm just free, I can just go and do anything," he said. "I always try to treat games as another opportunity to showcase myself and see what the team can do, because during the week it's just practice and school, and school really wears you down. So it's kind of like when I skate on the weekends, it's just go out there and play and have a really good time."

Okposo's passion for the game started with the sell-job he had at home. On the ice, because his father is Nigerian and his mother white, he's heard his share of slurs over the years. It hurt, but he learned to put it aside and focus on the game.

"I don't think about that stuff too much," Okposo said. "It comes up once in awhile, but I just try not to think about it. I just want to go and play."

But Okposo is not averse to becoming a spokesman on diversity issues.

For Okposo, the quit-hockey-for-basketball is almost a forgotten story, because it happened so long ago and he is such a competitive kid on the ice. 

"He's got skill, but he runs over people," Neil Smith said after making Okposo his first pick as general manager of the Islanders. "He plays a Cam Neely-type game."

St. Louis Blues scout Mike Antonovich has been watching Kyle since he was 15. He sees a different comparison.

"I see great speed, acceleration and hands and a kid who is really, really competitive," Antonovich said. "When he drives to the net in traffic, he's almost unstoppable.

"Kyle reminds me of Jarome Iginla at the same age. I remember back to 1993, when my son, Jeff, was on the same team in Kamloops with Iginla. To me, Okposo is as good, if not better, than Iginla was then ... and he has the same kind of upside and potential to be even better."

From taking a timeout and being suspended for a year from playing hockey for knocking over a Christmas tree with an errant slap shot, it is amazing that we can have two such different youngster like Kyle Okposo a very different twists away from hockey and back to the first round of the 2006 Entry Draft.

Clearly, you don't just grow up playing this great sport and then see hockey and those memories of those damp, dreary, smelly rinks you started in disappear from your core.

Not a chance.

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