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Friedman: Kyle Okposo Is Team USA’s Loss, Islanders’ Gain

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Kyle Okposo scores the game-winning goal in overtime against Chicago on January 2, 2014. The Islanders defeated the Blackhawks 3-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Kyle Okposo scores the game-winning goal in overtime against Chicago on January 2, 2014. The Islanders defeated the Blackhawks 3-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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By Daniel Friedman
» More Columns

Not even 24 hours had passed since he received some of the worst news of his hockey career, but on Thursday morning, Kyle Okposo was all class and all business.

The moment he stepped into the locker room after the Islanders’ morning skate, he knew what was in for. He calmly faced the pack of reporters who’d crowded around his stall and, as only Kyle Okposo would, comically exclaimed “what do you guys wanna know?”

I wanted to know if he felt a desire to prove USA Hockey wrong. “I just wanna play my game and keep getting better,” he said. “They put together the best team they felt was going to be able to win a gold medal. I’m disappointed I’m not gonna be part of it.”

Okposo was asked if it serves as motivation. “Definitely,” he said. “You want to use it in the right way. I’m gonna keep goin’, keep playing my game. That’s what I’m gonna look to do here in the second-half of the season.”

During a press conference after the American team was announced, USA Hockey GM David Poile mentioned that there were several players who could’ve potentially been on the roster. He then went on to list specific names, including Okposo’s.

“The quantity and especially the quality of USA players is so much higher than it’s ever been before,” said Poile. “These are top, top players who have done fabulous in their careers, and we’ve made decisions to go in other directions. It was hard. I did this with Brian Burke in 2010 and, all I can say is we did not have decisions back then anywhere close to the decisions we had to make this year.”

Added Poile: “It would’ve been interesting if you could’ve been a fly on the wall in some of those meetings.” Well, ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside was, and according to what he heard and wrote in his article, Okposo never really had a chance of making Team USA.

“Poile notes that Jason Pominville and Kyle Okposo are having great seasons,” says Burnside, “but haven’t been given much, if any, consideration. Still, the belief is that neither Pominville nor Okposo is built for the big ice, and their names will rarely, if ever, be heard in relation to making the team going forward.”

Okposo said he’d read the article. “That part’s a little frustrating; that they think I’m not built for the big ice, but that’s their opinion. I think I’ve proven myself on the big sheet in college and I have a lot of international experience playing in World Championships.”

You’d like to think that being second in points amongst US skaters would count for something. You’d like to think that Kyle Okposo wasn’t essentially written off several months ago; that after doing everything that’s been asked of him, quieting most of the naysayers and proving himself as a big-time hockey player, he had a shot at this.

But the fact is he didn’t, and it’s an absolute disgrace. Okposo could’ve morphed into Wayne Gretzky and it wouldn’t have mattered in the slightest. Quite frankly, USA Hockey looked at the players they had to choose from and over-thought themselves to death. Leaving off Okposo was one thing; deciding they were better off with Blake Wheeler and Justin Faulk than with Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle was quite another.

Even Patrick Kane, who will represent the United States at the Olympics for the second time in his career, weighed in on Okposo: “I’ve known him since I was 14. He was one of the most dominant players back then and still to this day,” Kane said after the Blackhawks’ skate at Nassau Coliseum Thursday morning. “He’s had a great year; I don’t think he should feel any shame of being left off that team.”

What’s done is done. Kyle Okposo isn’t going to Sochi and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. That being said, it’s a blessing in disguise as far as the Islanders are concerned.

He’ll be well-rested for the long haul and will play with a huge chip on his shoulder the rest of the way. A fully-charged and highly-motivated Okposo is a very good thing and should help the Isles in their quest back to respectability, let alone to the playoff picture.

Most of the hockey world is under the assumption that Okposo’s merely another byproduct of John Tavares — as if no other forwards in similar situations benefit on some level from playing with stars or, heaven forbid, bring their own unique skills and strengths to the table.

USA Hockey might not want to recognize just how much Okposo has improved and how much of an asset he can be, but the Isles know what they have in No. 21. They’ll gladly take him and his point-per-game production, not to mention his intangibles.

“He’s worked extremely hard,” said Jack Capuano. “He always pays the price in the summertime to get himself in tremendous shape. He’s a high-character guy and he’s a leader. I’m sure it was disappointing to hear the news yesterday, but just knowing the way he is, he’s going to continue to battle hard. He’s gonna move forward and do whatever he can to help our hockey team.”

On Thursday night, he did just that, scoring the overtime winner in a 3-2 victory over Chicago. He recorded an assist in the game, too.

Kyle Okposo deserved to make the US Olympic team. There’s no question about that whatsoever. But he’s still an outstanding hockey player, and his omission from the American squad doesn’t change that.

Now, the focus shifts back to the Islanders, where his effort and hard work will be appreciated and are of far greater importance. In Okposo’s case, donning blue, white and orange supersedes wearing red, white and blue.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN

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