Decision Day looms for Kyle Okposo, now the most sought after free agent of 2016
Kyle Okposo. (Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
Decision Day looms for Kyle Okposo, now the most sought after free agent of 2016
The forecast for a return to Brooklyn is cloudy at best for Kyle Okposo. Wherever he goes, his heavy game will land him a hefty raise.Practice has been over for a half an hour, and the dressing room is largely empty. Most of the New York Islanders have already showered and changed into their civvies, strictly adhering to the NHL off-day dress code of sweat pants and backward ball caps. Some are already on their way out of the rink. A lot of them take the Long Island Rail Road home from the team’s practice facility in Syosset, N.Y., and it’s on a schedule. Welcome to the real world, fellas. As the dressing room empties, Kyle Okposo remains slumped in his stall, still in full equipment, save for the Islanders cap replacing his helmet. His legs are splayed, his fingers intertwined as they rest on his chest. He’s in no rush to move along. In fact, he looks as though he’s getting ready to go out and take another twirl. Perhaps it’s because he has a two-year-old and a newborn at home and realizes the chaos that awaits him. Or it could be that this is where he feels most comfortable. He speaks easily and relaxed, not the least bit ill at ease or scripted. Finally, a member of the training staff stands in front of him with the bin full of practice sweaters, hoping he’ll take the hint. “Oh, sorry,” Okposo says, peeling off his sweater. “I’m kind of in La-La Land here.”
Yes, there is much to ponder, both in the short and long term for the young man. It’s the second off day between Games 3 and 4 for the Islanders in their second-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, giving them an extra day to stew about a game that got away from them after giving up a late lead and losing in overtime. For his part, Okposo has been producing points at about the same rate he has during the regular season. But he’s been an interesting case study in the analytics versus the eye test debate. He has been an analytics beast in the playoffs, largely because of an inordinately high number of offensive zone starts, but he has just one goal in nine games. He will score only one more, top corner from the sweet spot in front of the net on the power play, but it will be the last goal he and the Islanders score this season as they go quietly into the night.Okposo is six feet tall, 217 pounds, and in a good season he can put up 25 goals and 60-plus points. In the dialect of Isoko, which is spoken by a small minority ethnic group in midwestern Nigeria where his father was born, his last name means ‘Heavy Rains and Thunderstorms.’ It’s something he and his older sister, Kendra, a successful lawyer at the office of equal opportunity and affirmative action in the University of Minnesota, joke about when there’s a big storm. “She’ll shoot me a text and say, ‘Hey, it’s Okposoing outside right now,’ ” he says. In many ways, Okposo plays a game that matches his name, much the way Jarome Iginla matches his name in the Yoruba dialect, ‘Big Tree.’ “I try to play a hard game, and I try to make the opposition as uncomfortable as I can out there,” Okposo says. “So, yeah, I try to play that way, I guess.” When Okposo played at the Shattuck-St. Mary’s hockey factory in Faribault, Minn., with Jonathan Toews, coach Tom Ward said there used to be fights at the stick racks among players who wanted to be on a line with Okposo. More than a decade later, there could be a similar scuffle among NHL teams wanting to get him in the prime of his career. Islanders GM Garth Snow signed him to a team-friendly five-year deal in 2011 that carried an average annual salary of $2.8 million, a stipend Okposo can expect to go up at least 100 percent on a long-term deal. With Steven Stamkos re-signing with the Lightning, Okposo is the most attractive pending unrestricted free agent. He’s going to get his money. We all know that and so does he. But this is a major life decision for Okposo. It’s mentioned to him that the standard company line for all NHL free agents is for them to say they’re not even thinking about their contract, as though they’re programmed to wake up in the morning and only have cycling the puck on their minds at all times. “Yeah, they’re lying,” Okposo says. “They’re just lying. And that’s fine. But it’s just not possible for it not to be a distraction.” Okposo tried not to allow it to affect his performance or creep into the dressing room, and he feels he did a pretty good job with that. He had 22 goals and 64 points, the third- and second- best totals of his career, but it was as much about quality as quantity. Including shootout winners, he scored 11 goals that put the Islanders ahead in games and eight that put them in the lead for good – both of which were team highs. He also led the Islanders with two overtime goals and five shootout goals. Three of those were game-winners, which tied for the league lead. After the Islanders had cleared out their stalls following their quick second-round exit, Okposo said the team and his agent hadn’t even spoken about a contract extension, and there’s little to suggest anything will get done before July 1. Okposo will be pragmatic and practical when it comes to making a decision about his future. He and his sister were both raised to be introspective people and independent thinkers in a home where both parents were highly educated pharmacists. Their father, Kome Harrison Anthony Okposo, who was born 58 years ago to a tribal chief in Nigeria, fast-tracked his way through prep school and graduated at the age of 15. “I didn’t like it, so I did whatever I could to get away,” he says. “I studied as hard as I could and I skipped grades.” At that time, he couldn’t go to college until he gained “social maturity,” which meant he had to be 18. So at the age of 16, he went to school at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where he got his degree, then went on to the University of Minnesota, where he got his PhD in pharmacy, specializing in rheumatology and fibromyalgia. It was there he met Michele Dullinger, whom he was married to until 2005. Kome is now the senior director of medical affairs for a pharmaceutical company near Chicago that produces a remedy for gout. It’s no surprise someone who comes across the world to study in a foreign land at 16 would place a premium on having a solid work ethic. Kyle remembers his father would often be up in his study, reading medical journals and studying everything about the latest developments in the drug industry. As a hockey-crazed kid in Minnesota, Kyle wanted to direct his energy more to sports and would come home from school asking his parents why he even had to go there. That was fine with his father, as long as he was focused, determined and a self-starter. So as a young kid, Kyle would strap weights to his ankles and run up and down the stairs in his home leading to his father’s study. “I would go up to his office in the afternoon, where I’d be talking to him and he would say, ‘Did you run the stairs today?’ ” Kyle says. “I would say no, and that would be it. That was all he had to say.” Kome has been back to Nigeria only once since he left more than 40 years ago, and his children have never set foot in the country. But Kome remains proud of his heritage and has passed that pride on to his children. One of Kyle’s middle names is Evrovre, which translates into ‘Forgiveness’ in Isoko. The name, as is the custom, was bestowed upon Kyle by his paternal grandfather. There’s a story of significance attached to it, one that Kome prefers to keep private. “Forgiveness at that time was a good one for what the family was going through,” he says. “Kyle’s birth was very unique for us at that time.” Kendra’s middle name is Oghenemaero, which means ‘God is Great.’ When Kyle married Danielle Hirsch, herself a former varsity hockey player at St. Cloud State University, they decided they would carry on the custom. First they had a girl, Elliana, and Kome anointed her Seruo, which means ‘The Cherished One.’ In April, they welcomed a son, Odin, into the world. His middle name is Ezi, which means ‘Spirit.’ Had Kome decided not to fast-track through high school and come to North America for university, or had he decided to return home, life would have been so different for Kyle, a natural athlete who decided on hockey in his teens. “If you were taking bets on what a Nigerian kid would become in this country,” Kome says, “you’d probably take the over (on him becoming a hockey player). I mean, what are the odds?” When the father was faced with one of the most important decisions of his life, he did what was best for him. And like every other professional athlete who has confronted the same choice, the son will do the same. After years of failure, the Islanders are on the cusp of becoming a legitimate perennial contender, and the organization is the only one Okposo has known since he left the University of Minnesota in a controversial move in the middle of 2007-08. Okposo turned 20 later that season, has since married and fathered two children, earned more than $18 million and become a man. “This place has been a huge part of my life,” he says. “Just the way I look at the world has changed so much since I’ve been here. Hockey was the most important thing in my life before, and now it’s a little different. Just the way everything has gone over the last eight years that I’ve been here is something I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget my time here, and I’ll always look back and say I really grew up here.” Now, not to put words in Okposo’s mouth, but that doesn’t sound like a guy who thinks he’s going to be back, particularly when you have the options Okposo will on July 1. The Islanders aren’t flush in cap space and have some key players to sign over the next couple years, including John Tavares, whose team-friendly contract comes up for renewal in two years. Part of the issue for Okposo is logistics. As dilapidated as Nassau Coliseum was, it was a perfect setup for the players. They all live in that area and were a short drive to work on practice days and game days. The move to Brooklyn has been work in progress. The practice rink in Syosset is about 30 miles away, and the drive into games in Brooklyn can be a challenge. About half of the players drive, while the other half take the train. The practice rink situation will be a lot more palatable when the team moves into Twin Rinks Ice Center, a $52-million facility just a stone’s throw from the Coliseum that the franchise bought for just $8 million when cost overruns forced the owners into bankruptcy. But the players will still be faced with the commute to Brooklyn for games. After holding morning skates at the Barclays Center early in the season, the team abandoned that plan and moved them back to the practice facility. The situation is described by many as less than ideal. Not impossible, not oppressive, but less than ideal. Midway through the season, Okposo was very vocal and public with his criticism of the ice surface at the Barclays Center, a situation that improved when the owners installed another dehumidifier and had ice guru Dan Craig on the case. Okposo maintains that logistics will be only a small part of his decision, if indeed there is even a choice for him to make when it comes to the Islanders. He likens it to buying a new house. When you move, it’s up to you to create the memories and make it a home. The Islanders and their fans are in the midst of that transition right now, and they were 25-11-5 at home – their 55 points was the most they earned at home since 2003-04 – so they must have been doing something right. “It’s been a difficult year, but it’s been a good year,” Okposo says. “The transition hasn’t been easy, but it’s paid off. We’ve all gotten a lot more used to the idea of the Barclays Center being our home.” If the Islanders don’t re-sign Okposo, he’ll have no shortage of teams interested in him. He’s close friends with Toews, going back to their days at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, but the Blackhawks are already over the cap. And the lure of coming home is always there, as it was with Zach Parise, but the Wild are right up against the cap and have restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba to sign, so there would have to be some creative work done to make it happen there. Okposo does spend much of the summer at home in Minnesota, where he works out with the likes of Parise, Drew Stafford, Jordan Schroeder and Ryan Carter. They show up to the gym in the morning and work out, then get a skate in and go off and spend time with their families at the lake. Ward, who coached Okposo in high school and considers him one of the best players in the history of Shattuck-St. Mary’s, says the lure of coming home and playing in a vibrant hockey market is something that makes Minnesota such a draw for players from there. “They can walk around and get just the right amount of recognition,” Ward says. “They can go to the grocery store and somebody might say, ‘Hey, Kyle, you should come and play for the Wild,’ but they’re not going to browbeat him. They get just the right amount of recognition and solitude they’re looking for.” The player who came to the Islanders as a boy has now become a man. In Okposo’s first year, the Islanders reached out to Iginla, who also has a Nigerian father, to speak to him and provide some guidance. They spent an hour on the phone talking about how Okposo would handle the responsibilities of speaking about Black History Month when Okposo was in the minors in Bridgeport. Then when the Islanders came to Calgary the next season, Okposo was rocked by Dion Phaneuf with a hit that sent him to the hospital. When Okposo returned to the rink hours after the game, Iginla was there waiting to see him. It was a case of a veteran giving forward. And now Okposo is becoming that veteran. With experience come choices, and those have rewards and consequences. A huge decision looms, but it’s one that will be made with an open mind and a sense of balance. “When you bring emotions in is when you make poor decisions,” Okposo says. “When you get emotional is when your decisions become clouded and your thinking becomes clouded.” This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the June 20 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.