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November 14, 2006 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Phenom-enal

by Dane DeKrey/CHN Reporter

We may as well talk turkey about standout freshman Minnesota forward Kyle Okposo:

1) He's black.

2) He plays hockey.

3) Nobody cares.

"Those days are long gone," said Golden Gophers coach, Don Lucia, in reference to racial intolerance in college hockey. "When you look at Kyle, you look at him as a hockey player and a terrific person first; his race gets masked by his character."

For Okposo, the only color that seems to matter is red — that of the lamp he is notoriously known to light, and at alarming rates. Already leading the WCHA in goals, having tallied 9 in his first 10 games, Okposo is proving he is worth every bit of being the seventh overall pick in last year's NHL Entry Draft.

But for the St. Paul native, it's donning maroon and gold that widens his already ear-to-ear grin.

"It's been a lifelong dream for me to play at the U," said Okposo, who is the first African-American player in team history. "It just feels real good to contribute to the team and try to fill the roles as best I can."

With the gaping holes left by last season's departures, which included Hobey Baker finalist, Ryan Potulny, Lucia and company couldn't be happier with the incredible start to the season by the Gopher freshmen.

For starters, fellow phenom Jay Barriball and Okposo are second and third on the team in scoring, with 14 and 13 points, respectively. Couple that with two first rounders — including the No. 1 overall pick last June — in Erik Johnson and David Fischer on defense, and the future of Gopher hockey, as usual, has fans licking their chops.

Okposo

Okposo

But with all the talent that is Minnesota hockey, it is Okposo who seems to add a different, much-needed dimension to an always high-scoring roster — grit. Rarely losing physical battles either in front of the net or in the corners, Okposo's some 200-pound frame never shies away from a little lunch-bucket hockey, something that the team seems to have been lacking in years past.

"I just try to lace 'em up and throw my weight around," said Okposo of his bruiser brand of hockey. "I do think there's some grittiness in me, but I just try to work hard every shift I get."

Okposo, who played for the Des Moines Buccaneers in the United States Hockey League last season, saw his raw talent — both physically and fundamentally — be catered to and developed by head coach Regg Simon and crew.

"Kyle embodies the way we play here in Des Moines," said Simon. "Our guys play our games honest, meaning we stress winning puck battles and finishing hits, and I think a year here helped Kyle in that area."

Okposo returned the favor when his "put it in your skates" mentality helped the club win its first Clark Cup championship since 1998 — picking up Rookie of the Year and Clark Cup MVP honors along the way.

"In my time here, he's the best all-around hockey player we've ever had," said Simon, who has been at the helm of the organization for four years. "As far as doing everything very, very well, that's Kyle; he can score, hit, drive the net, play defense, kill penalties ... there just aren't any holes to his game."

Already drawing comparisons to Jarome Iginla, another superlative hockey player who just so happens to be African-American, Okposo understands and embraces the need for diversity in the historically white dominated sport.

"Hopefully, I would like to do as much as I can to get more minorities playing hockey," said Okposo, whose father is Nigerian and mother Caucasian. "Diversity is really good for the sport, but in general, I just want to see more young black kids playing sports."

Lucia expanded on Okposo's opportunity of becoming the conduit to a more diverse sport.

"I think Kyle can be a real role model, having grown up a few miles from campus, he's somebody that people can look up to," said Lucia. "I think there are a low number of African-American players because they have few to look up to — well, Kyle is someone they can emulate. He has that aura about him, people respect how hard he works; he's a good student and a good citizen, just about everything we want in a Gopher hockey player."

A prototypical fan favorite, one who hits, scores, and visibly loves to play the game, Okposo is steadily emerging as the new face of Minnesota hockey. And while that face may be a bit darker than what Gopher fans are used to, the 18-year-old is proving that skill, not skin, is all that matters.

"The last year and a half of my life has been a blast," said Okposo. "From the USHL to the NHL draft, and now here in Minnesota — I couldn't ask for anything more."

Neither can we.

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