by Kimber Auerbach || AHL On The Beat Archive
This isn’t an article to acclaim an incredible black athlete during Black History Month for the hurdles that he has overcome throughout his career.
Besides, Kyle Okposo wouldn’t want it that way.
The nameplate “12 OKPOSO” sits in between the “10 BENTIVOGLIO” and “9 WALTER” plates. Underneath, are pairs of Rbk Islander blue gloves, white Rbk helmets and Bauer 40 skates dangling from steel hooks. Okposo’s stall looks identical to that of his teammates, leaving the casual member of the various tours thinking there are no differences between the players.
“There are not many black men playing the sport of hockey professionally and for me, once I hopefully make it to the NHL, knowing that I am there as a black athlete, it will mean a great deal,” Okposo said. “I know my parents take great pride in our heritage, raising my sister and I the way they did, so it is extremely important to me.”
In this month of February, a time to honor the great black heroes of our country, Okposo finds it hard not to think of Willie O’Ree, hockey’s equivalent to Jackie Robinson, as one of the true ground-breakers of the sport.
“Growing up as an African-American, playing the sport of hockey, you don’t really see it happen much,” Okposo said. “I’ve watched the NHL Network a lot and seen pieces on Willie O’Ree and how he was the first player to come into the NHL. He means a lot because he paved the way for us to come into this league and be judged by our skill on and off the ice instead of our color.”
The background of Okposo is that his father, Kome, grew up in Nigeria but his father (Kyle’s grandfather) wanted his son to earn an education that could let him live a happy life. So Kome was sent to the United States of America to attend the University of Minnesota — the same school Kyle would eventually attend — where he majored in pharmaceutical medicine.
Those same classes are where he met Kyle’s mother, Michele. The couple was married a few years later and started a family.
With the strong family backing Okposo has received from his mother and father, he has set the American Hockey League on fire scoring seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points in his first 21 professional games.
Those numbers have drawn attention from many fans and members of the media. On Jan. 10, Okposo joined the Sound Tigers for his first practice, to the craze of the New York Times, Newsday, Getty Images and various other nationally known press services asking him questions and snapping flash bulbs in his face before he even took his first step onto the ice.
The 20-year-old, who was busy renewing acquaintances from Islanders rookie camp in the off-season, handled it like a 20-year veteran playing on Long Island, another prediction the Islanders are hoping for.
“There has been talk that the organization has me as a part of the future and that is a great honor because they have a rich tradition here, winning those four straight Stanley Cups,” Okposo said. “I know everybody wants to go far in the playoffs and if I turn out to be a part of that, it would be great, but right now I just want to keep on improving every day and help whatever team I’m on.”
The ability to handle the hype and attention as a first-round draft pick, playing at one of the most prestigious hockey universities in the country and representing the U.S. as a member of several World Junior Tournaments are just a few of the things Okposo has already done. It takes some thick skin to have the ability to withstand the expectations and hype placed on him. Not only has he done it, but he has gotten through it in a sport that he admits he is a minority.
“The proof is in the numbers that there just are not as many black hockey players as there are Caucasians,” Okposo said. “The fact in the end is that it just doesn’t matter. No matter who you’re playing with or against, you have to compete every time the puck is dropped. Guys like Jarome Iginla, Mike Grier, Georges Laraque and Donald Brashear, are a few really good players that have paved the way. I just hope to have the chance to follow in the footsteps they have laid.”
Okposo has always looked up to Iginla as one of his favorite players not only because he is black, but also because of the way he competes to help his team win at any cost. While preparing for the middle game of a three-in-three weekend, Okposo’s phone rang and on the other end was Iginla.
“It was amazing to speak with him about all of his experiences,” Okposo said. “It was inspiring and meant a lot to me that a guy so important to the NHL had the time to speak with me.”
When Iginla is eventually elected into the NHL Hall of Fame, he will leave a legacy of moments that appear in everyone’s mind from captaining his team to a Stanley Cup Final to having the leadership mentality to defend his team and drop the gloves in a classic hockey fight against Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier.
“Whatever it takes” is a phrase that O’Ree lived by and look where it led him. Okposo hopes to have the chance in the future to write his own story as one that touches other young hockey players with the aspirations of playing in the NHL.
“I want to be a role model for kids, no matter if they’re black or white. I want people to see me as someone who respects the game and plays honest everyday,” Okposo said. “I had a coach who said ‘it doesn’t matter who you are, if you play the game the right way, you will be rewarded.’ That is what I try to do and represent each time I step onto the ice and carry on when I step off.”