The play seemed innocent enough.
With roughly five minutes left in the second period, Buffalo Sabres Kyle Okposo jumped over the boards to replace his man and took a single stride into the action.
Hopefully, it won’t be the last stride of his NHL career.
Unfortunately, Okposo skated directly into the path of Ottawa Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey who was headed to his bench. In the blink of an eye, Hainsey accidentally clipped Okposo’s head, dropping him to the ice. There was no ill intent or malicious backstory. It was a fluke.
Clearly woozy, teammates Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson helped Okposo over the boards before he headed to the dressing room.
Monday, the Sabres announced Okposo suffered a concussion and was placed on injured reserve retroactive to Nov. 16. The St. Paul, MN native still has three seasons to go on a contract that pays him $6 million annually.
Okposo’s Fourth Concussion
This is the fourth concussion in less than three years for the rugged and well-liked 31-year-old winger. It’s the second this calendar year.
Okposo also missed time in Feb. 2019 after taking a haymaker to the face courtesy of New York Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo. Though he quickly got up, Okposo was steadied by a linesman, then escorted to the team dressing room. He did not return to the ice.
Prior to that, Okposo suffered a concussion in March 2018, after he collided with Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan, sidelining him for over a week.
The worst and most serious concussion came at the end of the 2017-18 season after receiving a routine hit in practice. Okposo missed the last two weeks of the regular season and spent time in the Neuro Surgical ICU unit of Buffalo General Medical Center after some bad reactions to medication. He lost considerable weight, couldn’t sleep and was in a bad place psychologically. He was diagnosed with a condition that causes severe disorientation, confusion and behavioral changes.
Okposo disclosed the illness in an article on NHL.com. The complication arose from medication he was taking as well as a possible concussion sustained during a normal play in practice.
“It was just a hard bump,” he explained. “In fact, the play was so common that I sort of just brushed it off without thinking much of it. But in the ensuing days, my mood began to change. I didn’t notice, but the people around me did. By the time we were playing our game against Florida on March 27, I had been having trouble sleeping for a couple of days already. My senses for some reason were worsening with each passing day. I thought I was just overtired.”
It was a very dark time for Okposo, as he struggled to function as a husband and a father.
Related: Thanksgiving Came Early for Okposo
Upon his return, Okposo was beyond appreciative of the support he received. “It meant a lot, it was a tough situation, a tough road and I’m just happy to be back and happy to be able to play again at a high level,” said a humble Okposo. “The hockey community is a tight-knit group and I’m thankful to be part of it. When something happens to you and you’re going through a tough time, the support that you receive is pretty tremendous and I think it says a lot about the character we have in this game.”
Should Okposo Return?
It’s easy for an outsider to say that Okposo’s long-term health is far more important than his hockey career. But no matter how one looks at it, four concussions is a lot to recover from. Okposo may face the incredibly hard decision of whether he should return to action. No doubt, there’s some tough, soul-searching ahead of him.
Should the Sabres place Okposo on long-term injured reserve, he’ll still be paid, but the Sabres can add a roster spot and get cap relief in the process. But first and foremost, the valued teammate needs to heal and recover.
Patience is a virtue when dealing with any injury, but especially a concussion. It’s well documented how hockey players play through pain and do anything to get back on the ice. But in order to recover, athletes must rest themselves physically and mentally and fight the urge to return less than 100% healthy.
Okposo’s teammates are sure to rally around their friend. “First and foremost he’s a person. You think about him and his well-being and hockey comes second to everyone in this room, so you think about him, you’re there for him and be there for his family as well,” said Zach Bogosian. “Going through what he’s been through in his career, it’s been tough for him, so we’re going to be there for him.”
The “LOG” Line
Okposo, a 13-year veteran, is playing his fourth season in Buffalo for the Sabres. He’s been playing alongside Zegmus Girgensons and Johan Larsson and has a goal and four assists in 19 games.
The checking, hustling, never-take-a-shift off trio has been one of the team’s most consistent lines.
Before coming to Buffalo as an unrestricted free agent, Okposo helped bring the New York Islanders out of their playoff drought and said he was determined to do the same with the Sabres. “Winning here is something that I want badly. I said at my opening press conference that I came to the Sabres because I think we have a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and I really believe that.”
With Okposo out, things didn’t get any better for the Sabres. The next night, Tage Thompson, who was called up from Rochester to fill in for Okposo, suffered an injury on his final shift of the night against the Chicago Blackhawks. He’ll be out 3-to-5 weeks with an upper-body injury.
It marked the fifth consecutive game the team lost a different player to injury. The Sabres have recently lost Vladimir Sobotka (lower body) as well as Marcus Johansson and Larsson (both upper body) to the press box.
To compound the matter, the Rochester Amerks, the Sabres AHL affiliate, is already down several players. C.J. Smith is out 4-to-6 weeks, and Remi Elie and Scott Wilson are both week-to-week.
All the Best, Kyle
We join Okposo’s teammates in wishing him a complete recovery. He’s a classy, hardworking, stand-up guy whose health and family are far more important than playing the game of hockey.
While it may be tough to have to walk away from the sport he loves so much, the safest thing for him may be to transition into the next chapter of his life without risking any sort of permanent damage. The cumulative effects of post-concussion syndrome are very real and have been documented numerous times. Multiple head injuries can cause cognitive issues down the road, not to mention pain, darkness and suicidal thoughts.
It’s simply not worth extending a career that puts him at great risk for living a normal, healthy life. Okposo is married and has a daughter, Elliana, and son, Odin, both under the age of six.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”