In another difficult season for the Buffalo Sabres, veteran winger Kyle Okposo's daily presence is a reminder that players can't take their time in the game for granted.
Okposo, who landed in the neuro ICU unit of Buffalo General Medical Center last year after a serious reaction to concussion medication, is a nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. Okposo was selected in a vote of the Buffalo chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The award honors the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. The winner from the league's 31 chapters will be announced in June as part of the NHL Awards Show.
Okposo's ninth full NHL season included a trip to the 2017 All-Star Game in Los Angeles but ended prematurely and things then became very ominous in his world. With his career in doubt, support came in from around the NHL and buoyed Okposo in his recovery and his eventual return to the game. That started during summer pro league play in July in his native Minnesota, the first sign that he was going to be able to return to the NHL.
"There were a lot of guys there and that was great," Okposo said. "Everywhere I went this summer, seeing guys in Minnesota and other guys. you would hear from them, 'I'm happy that you're back playing, I'm happy you're OK. Just take it slow.' Just happy I was healthy. The hockey community really is a small tight-knit community and the support I got from everybody was really cool."
Okposo recalled how nervous he was during his first summer league game, and how significant the moment was for him in his road back to the game.
"That was pretty significant for sure. I didn't know if I'd be playing again," he said. "I had taken a lot of time off from the game, the longest time I had been off the ice and away from the game since I can remember. I had some nerves in that game. It was the first one and I didn't know how I was going to react. I wasn't very good to be honest with you but it was really nice to be out there playing again after a scary situation. I'm happy to be back, happy to have hockey in my life. I want to get back to where I know I can be."
Okposo is back serving as an alternate captain for the Sabres and through troubled times for both him and the team, he's forging ahead to plan for a better 2018-19 season. Next year, he's likely to play in his 700th game and could eclipse 500 career points. Okposo has just 11 goals and 40 points in 70 games this season.
"It really does eat me up inside the way that I've been playing," he said. "But when the season is over, I'm going to take a couple weeks and try to decompress, let things go. I will also be appreciative of the fact I'm playing in the NHL for sure. ... There were moments where I didn't know if I'd ever get back here. Now that I have, I want to make sure I'm doing everything I can to get back to being the player I know I can be."
The injury and his subsequent illness sparked a whirlwind 12 months for Okposo. He learned his wife was pregnant in June and she gave birth to their third child, a girl, about four weeks ago.
"It was a helluva year for sure," he said. "My wife and I found out we were pregnant in June. I was still trying to get back, almost put myself back together again. Now we're having our third child. That's the way life goes. You never know. You just roll with it. She gave birth to a healthy girl and I couldn't be happier. Life is good when you take everything into account.
"Of course, I want to be better in my professional life as an athlete. That's what we're here for, to be at the top of your game. But I have a family, three beautiful kids. I'm a happy dad when I go home and I'm loving life."
The Sabres announced they are giving away a Dominik Hasek bobblehead at the home finale April 4 against Ottawa. The Hall of Fame goaltender is portrayed sliding across the ice with his pads spread. He's wearing the white jersey with the "goathead" logo that was used by the Sabres from 1996-2006.
Hasek won a fan vote earlier in the season to become the bobblehead giveaway. All fans attending the finale in KeyBank Center will receive the collectible.
FIRST LOOK: The Dominik Hasek Bobbleheads are in!
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) March 26, 2018
The Sabres have finalized plans for the final home and road games of the season, and the annual "Fan Appreciation Celebration" includes the crowning of the top fan. The Sabres are asking backers for written or video submissions of themselves that best demonstrate their passion for the team. Fans can visit Sabres.com/fanoftheyear through noon Friday to submit their applications.
The winner of Fan of the Year will be part of the ceremonial faceoff prior to the Ottawa game. The night also will include jerseys off the players' backs, food giveaways and the return of on-ice player awards.
Select season-ticket holders will be chosen to receive jerseys from the players. The Sabres will hand over their game-worn, Winter Classic-themed jerseys after the final buzzer.
Winners of this season’s player awards will be announced as part of the pregame ceremony, a return to the usual form. Last season, short video packages were shown throughout the finale. The awards, voted on by the players, include the Most Valuable Player, Unsung Hero, Rookie of the Year and the Sabres Foundation Man of the Year.
There will be Lucky Row giveaways from team sponsors, including (716) Food and Sport, Healthy Scratch, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Perry’s Ice Cream, Tim Hortons, Wegmans and La Nova, which will provide an entire section with a voucher for a free pizza.
There also will be concession discounts. Hot dogs, soft pretzels, popcorn tubs and Sabres souvenir cups with soda will be $3 each. The Sabres Store will give all fans 40 percent off their purchase during the game.
KeyBank has invited former Money Minute contestants to attend the game and participate in a random drawing to win $5,000. The KeyBank Money Minute awards $5,000 to a fan if the Sabres score in the opening minute of the second period. It happened twice this season.
Fans can choose the Moe's Hot Players for the home finale. Starting Thursday, fans can visit the Buffalo Sabres Facebook page to vote for their favorite players, and the top three vote-getters will be chosen as the Moe's Hot Players for the game.
The Sabres close the season April 7 in Florida. Fans tuned in to MSG will have a chance to win prizes throughout the broadcast.
Registered My One Buffalo members will be able to access a form to enter the contest to win a variety of prizes, including two round-trip tickets from Delta Air Lines, an overnight stay package from Buffalo Marriott HarborCenter, two tickets to the Sabres’ 2018-19 home opener, and a $500 gift card courtesy of KeyBank.
To participate, fans can follow the link in the Sabres section of the My One Buffalo app. The link will be available from the beginning of the pregame show through the end of the third period. Winners will be announced by Brian Duff during both intermissions and the postgame show on MSG.
News Sports Reporter John Vogl contributed to this report.