BUFFALO – If Kyle Okposo had his way, there might not be any celebration. The captain is grateful, mind you. It’s just that the spotlight makes him a bit uncomfortable, and tonight he will be front and center as the Sabres celebrate his 1,000th NHL game.
“I understand it’s a big thing, it’s a big deal,” Okposo said following Monday’s practice. “It’s OK to get recognized, and I’m going to try to enjoy it as much as I can. But it’s about the game, it’s a good team coming in here, we want to play extremely well.
“I understand that a lot of it, there’s going to be a spotlight on me. But, yeah, I’m definitely somebody that’s going to enjoy having a nice glass of red wine when it’s done.”
The pregame ceremony honoring Okposo, 35, before the Sabres host the Boston Bruins at KeyBank Center promises to be an emotional and memorable event.
The affable veteran arrived in town in 2016 having signed a seven-year contract as a prized free agent. Before that first season ended, it appeared a frightening concussion that forced him to hospitalized in intensive care might end his career.
But he overcame that concussion, which wouldn’t be the last one he suffered, and other obstacles to reach one of hockey’s prestigious marks.
“It’s not a mistake that he’s played this long and had the type of career he’s had being able to bounce back from a lot of things along the way,” said former NHL forward Jeff Tambellini, Okposo’s teammate with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and New York Islanders. “So he’s resilient, he’s got a great personality for the game and just a fantastic competitor.”
Along the way in Buffalo, Okposo became a pivotal figure in the Sabres’ revival. He is a beloved teammate, and his emergence as their leader has helped transform their culture.
Long after he retires, that will likely be the winger’s legacy.
The Sabres have grown into a tight-knit group. Players often say everyone feels comfortable simply being themselves.
They take their lead from Okposo, who despite having played 16 years in the NHL and earned more $50 million, still has a down-to-earth personality.
The American said reaching his milestone with his teammates will be “special because I know where we’ve been and I know where we are now.”
The Sabres finished dead last in 2020-21, winning just 15 of their 56 games. Last season, they fell one win short of securing a playoff spot.
“That’s something I’m the most proud of, is what we have in that room and what they’re going to continue to do in that room for hopefully a long time is something that is tangible,” Okposo said. “And I don’t know how many wins come from that, how that translates on the ice, but I know that it does. And I can see it in the way they treat each other, how they treat everybody else, how respectful of a group they are.
“But how much they care about each other, that means the world to me. To be playing with those guys, it’s a ton of fun.”
On Monday, Don Granato explained how Okposo helped him relay information to players after he took over as Buffalo’s interim coach during that awful 2020-21 season.
“He helped me tremendously in that,” he said. “It was fast.”
He added: “He was very special to me then, and remains that way and to our organization.’
Their talks haven’t stopped. On Monday, Granato said they had a “great conversation” about the physical and psychological state of the Sabres for about 25 minutes.
“He’s been instrumental in helping me convey messages and giving me feedback as well,” he said.
It seems Okposo hasn’t changed much since he arrived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, as a teenage rookie almost 16 years ago.
As the seventh overall pick by the Islanders in 2006, he was regarded as one of hockey’s top prospects as he began his career in the AHL.
Still, Pat Bingham, one of Bridgeport’s assistant coaches in 2007-08, said Okposo carried himself like “he was just a regular kid.”
“Everybody loved him,” he said.
Okposo smiled Monday as he recalled those early days. He had hoped to turn pro following his freshman season at Minnesota in 2006-07. But the Islanders wanted him to play major junior hockey. He felt that would be a lateral move.
“So I stayed in school and I was playing center, and I had an absolutely horrible start to my sophomore year, just was not playing well, not confident,” he said. “So they called me before I went to World Juniors, and they said, ‘We want to sign you.’”
Okposo agonized over his decision before turning pro.
“I don’t wish that upon anybody, to kind of have to go through something like that to decide between your teammates and your ultimate goal,” he said.
Okposo moved into a house with Tambellini and Blake Comeau. Right away, Tambellini said Okposo connected with his new teammates and earned their respect for how hard he played the game.
“What a great kid,” Tambellini said. “No ego, came in just happy to be there, ready to work hard. I remember he was late for his first practice because someone had held him up. He was so nervous that they held practice for him. And he was just the most humble kid.”
When reminded of that practice Monday, Okposo laughed and said it might’ve been because he was taking a physical.
While he had been on his own in high school and college, he said playing pro “was very strange.”
“I got my first paycheck in Bridgeport and it was 2,500 bucks, and I was like, ‘Gosh, I am rich. I am buying all the boys Quiznos,’” he said. “So I did.”
On March 18, 2008, Okposo played first NHL game. Three days later, he scored the first of his 230 goals.
“He just had that really good demeanor about him that he knew who he was and his game was going to speak for itself,” former Islanders coach Ted Nolan said.
The Islanders recalled Okposo, Comeau and Tambellini at the same time, meaning their house in Bridgeport was empty. When they sent Tambellini down, he found out Okposo forgot to pay the electric bill.
“He went and there was no power in the house,” Okposo said.
Tambellini, however, never held it against him.
“You can’t not want to be around this guy,” he said. “So he (earned respect) from a young age, and to his credit, he’s still doing that until today.”