Kyle Okposo said his 500th game on Tuesday in Columbus was a nice milestone, but not one he’d dwell on too much with the crucial part of the season in full swing.
Truthfully, though, this is a meaningful career marker for the 27-year-old, who had an assist on Anders Lee’s game-tying goal in a 3-2 shootout win.
There are a few reasons why Okposo’s 500th means a bit more than he might be letting on. First is that in all likelihood it’s the last major milestone he’ll hit as an Islander — there have been no contract talks between GM Garth Snow and Pat Brisson, Okposo’s agent, since brief discussions last offseason.
That could mean the Feb. 29 trade deadline will be a more nervous time than it’s ever been for Okposo, almost certainly headed into a summer of unrestricted free agency.
“You always, as a player, are a little bit on edge even when you think you’re going to be safe, but this year is very different, being an unrestricted free agent,” Okposo said. “It’s something new, but it comes with the business. I just have to do what I can on the ice and the rest will take care of itself.
“After that, it’s all about trying win a Cup. That’s my sole focus, something I’ve wanted to do here. To have some legitimate chances here now — last year, the whole season, I thought we had a legitimate chance to win. It didn’t work out that way, a tough playoff series. But I think we have a really good team, we have a chance to do something special. You still have to get in, and we’re in a fight to do it.”
There’s also the major scare Okposo had last January, when pain behind his eye turned into emergency surgery to reattach his retina (as well as a preventive procedure on his other eye). In the weeks he spent on his couch while the Islanders foundered through February, game No. 500 may have seemed like a pipe dream.
“I’m very aware my career could’ve been cut short at 450 or whatever and I’m really happy it didn’t and I’m able to keep playing,” he said. “It’s a really scary thing and I’m glad it’s behind me and that I’m still able to play.”
And it’s not as if Okposo is struggling. He leads the Islanders with 42 points in a season where he’s played barely a full game alongside John Tavares, proving to Snow and to 29 other GMs that Okposo can generate offense wherever he plays.
Lastly, Okposo is a pioneer with his milestone. He’s just the second African-American who played U.S. amateur hockey (as opposed to Canadian junior hockey) to reach 500 games, with longtime Oilers and Sabres forward Mike Grier the only other to come up through the high school and college ranks.
Race is a subject that Okposo, who is biracial, takes great pains to avoid. He would always rather be known as a hockey player first. But being just the second in such a category drew his notice.
“I didn’t know that,” Okposo said. “It’s something pretty cool. I’ve stayed away from that topic throughout my career for different reasons, but it’s something that’s pretty neat.”