New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo spends a lot of time these days waiting- and it never felt so good for the Minnesota native.
Okposo and his wife are expecting the birth of their first child in January. He’s waiting for the Islanders 2015 move from Long Island to suddenly hip downtown Brooklyn and the Barclays Center And he’s waiting to learn whether he’ll make the cut and play for the United States men’s hockey team at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February.
Okposo was all smiles Monday as he joined 47 other professional hockey players who were invited to attend USA Hockey’s two-day pre-Olympics orientation camp at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington, Va.
“It would be awesome, pretty special to represent my country,” Okposo said. “I’ve represented my country at a lot of different events, but never the Olympics. It was definitely nice to be invited to this camp.”
While he’s waiting for good things, Okposo admits that – to borrow a line from a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song – the waiting is the hardest part when it comes to whether or not he’ll be selected for Sochi.
The final decision on the team won’t be made until the weeks before the Olympics. The U.S. national team, piloted by Pittsburgh Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma, will pick talent based on how the invitees to this week camp perform for their NHL or minor league teams in the opening months of the season.
“This is going to be in the back of your mind, the Olympics,” Okposo said. “That being said, what’s going to dictate you being on the team is how you play on the ice for your NHL team. So that has to be your first and foremost thought. You have to play well and do everything for your own team in order to make this one.”
Okposo hopes he’ll have a better start to the upcoming season that he did during the labor dispute-shortened, 48-game, 2012-13 season. Last season, the right wing only registered only 4 goals and 20 assists.
But he turned things around in the second half on the season. He scored three goals and one assists in six games in the Stanley Cup playoffs opening round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Islanders lost the series.
His numbers pale compared to those of Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane, Toronto Maple Leafs forwards James van Reimsdyk and Phil Kessel, and other players invited to the pre-Olympics camp. But he has intangibles that the U.S. national team covets.
Okposo has experience playing on larger ice surfaces like the one in Sochi. Most rinks international rinks are 200-by-100 feet, which increases the importance of skating ability. NHL rinks are 200-by-85 feet. Okposo spent his college career playing on the University of Minnesota’s international-size ice surface.
Both the U.S. and Canada are so concerned about the larger ice surface, which they believe contributed to poor Olympic performances off North American soil, that Canada Head Coach Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings held ball hockey walkthroughs with his prospective players in Calgary Monday in an arena with a melted international-sized rink surface.
“Skating is magnified more so on the Olympic sheet. To have a team that can move is definitely going to be a factor,” Okposo said. “All the guys in the NHL are going to have an adjustment the first time they get on (international-sized) ice.”
Defenseman Seth Jones, who the Nashville Predators selected with the fourth pick in June’s NHL draft, has experience on the big rink from playing on the U.S. junior national team that won the gold medal at the 2013 World Championship last December in Ufa, Russia.
Though he’s yet to play a minute in the NHL, Jones said he’s setting his sights on Sochi.
“It feels unbelievable to be invited here with all these great players and being thought of in the same category with some of these guys,” Jones said. “Obviously there are a lot of great defenseman here and they’re very deep, but we’ll see. I’ve got to make Nashville first, and I’ll have to have a pretty good start to the year to make it. But that’s definitely my goal.”
Brian Burke, the U.S. national team’s director of player personnel and former general manager of the Maple Leafs, said it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for Jones to wear the U.S. red, white and blue come February.
“It might be a steep hill for Seth, but he’s always exceeded expectations to this point and I can see him doing it again very easily,” Burke said.
Jones, a Plano, Texas, native said he has to factor in earning an Olympics slot while adjusting to the NHL and its grueling 82-game season. He estimated that he logged 94 or 95 games during the 2012-13 season playing major juniors for the Canadian Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, playing in Russia with the U.S. junior national team, and playing for Portland in the Memorial Cup final.
He said he “didn’t do anything for two weeks or three weeks, maybe,” after the Winterhawks lost to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads in the final.
“It definitely felt like a 12-year – er, 12-month season this year. It’s definitely a big step, but I think I’m capable of making it this year.”
One of Jones’ competitors for a defense spot on Team USA is Dustin Byfuglien of the Winnipeg Jets. For him, making the U.S. team and winning a Gold Medal would be a trifecta. He’s already been named an NHL All-Star and won a Stanley Cup in the 2009-10 season with the Blackhawks.
Byfuglien – a massive man with a massive slap shot, nimble skating ability, and the skill to play either defense or left wing – beamed when asked about the possibility of playing for the U.S. hockey team.
“It would mean a lot to me and my family just to get the opportunity to go over there and be part of the Olympics,” Byfuglien, a Minnesota native. “This is a fun thing to be part of. Any time you can put on a U.S. jersey and represent your country it means a lot.
Burke called Byfuglien a potential game-changing force on the ice.
“He can play forward, he can play defense, he’s got a cannon for a shot,” Burke told me. “On the big ice, is he the answer? I don’t know that depends on how he plays and on the coaches. But the one thing he can do is change the game.”