Kyle Okposo did not need to hear a diagnosis to know something was wrong. He had become all too familiar with the symptoms of a concussion.
The Buffalo Sabres forward knew his neck was an area of concern after he was hit in the head during an accidental collision with Ottawa Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey in KeyBank Center on Nov. 16. Okposo, who skated with the Sabres on Monday for the first time since the injury, described his demeanor in the immediate aftermath as "super emotional."
This was the fourth documented concussion Okposo had suffered since joining in the Sabres in 2016 and the second in a calendar year. During summer 2017, a concussion and reaction to medications landed Okposo in the neurological intensive care unit at Buffalo General Hospital.
As Okposo waited for symptoms to subside from his latest traumatic brain injury, he contemplated life after hockey. He expressed a blend of overwhelming relief and excitement Monday that he's "100 percent" and can stop wondering what he would do if he had to walk away from the sport at 31 years old.
"It’s something you think a lot about post-career, and that’s the first thing that kind of pops into my head, as I’m sure it did with a lot of other people that know my history," Okposo said when asked if retirement crossed his mind. "When these things happen repeatedly, I just want answers. I want to make sure I’m going to be OK later. I don’t have a crystal ball. Nobody else has a crystal ball, either, but I saw the right people and I got the information that I needed to hear to continue to play. I’m excited to be back and I’m happy to be back out there feeling fresh and feeling 100 percent."
Okposo smiled and joked that he wished he could play Monday night against the New Jersey Devils, but he hoped to return to the lineup during the Sabres' three-game Western Canada road trip, which begins Thursday in Calgary.
Coach Ralph Krueger, though, told the media Okposo is "a ways away" from being cleared for contact on the ice. All involved are concerned for Okposo's well-being. He recalled Monday in vivid detail the latest hit that forced him to contemplate his future.
Okposo climbed over the bench and was about to dart up ice in an attempt to receive a breakout pass from defenseman Marco Scandella late in the second period against Ottawa. However, a linesman was standing between Okposo and Hainsey, preventing both players from seeing each other.
Hainsey's left shoulder caught Okposo on the right side of the jaw. Okposo dropped to his knees before he skated slowly back to bench, where Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart helped him over the boards. Okposo sat with his head down for a few moments and followed an athletic trainer down the tunnel.
"It’s not fun," he said. "It’s something I knew right away that I wasn’t good. I’ve unfortunately been down this road enough to know what to look for — symptoms, neck, head — and I just knew right away the neck wasn’t good. ... The emotions were different, the feelings were different, and I think that’s the thing about concussions is they’re really never the same, so just waiting for it to subside obviously makes you contemplate a lot of different things. I was happy to — once I turned the corner — really improve quickly and was able to get over the hump."
Last February, Okposo suffered a concussion during a fight with New York Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo. Okposo missed four games and finished the season with 14 goals among 29 points. He was performing well in a checking-line role prior to this latest setback, scoring one goal among five points with a plus-5 rating.
Okposo, though, has missed nine games, leaving a significant hole on the ice and in the dressing room. He called the support he received from around the National Hockey League "humbling" and described how too often people only think about athletes during competition and forget that they also endure difficult times.
His latest bout with adversity left him wondering what's next, yet he's approaching this next step in his recovery with confidence that the worst is behind him.
"It's not a fun place to be and super emotional after the game against Ottawa and just went home and really thought about a lot of things," Okposo, who has three years remaining on his contract, said. "I’ve been through some dark times with it, obviously, and the thought of going back there is not fun. It’s a very uneasy feeling and fortunate enough I have the right people around me now and have enough support to lean on different people so that I know I’m going to get better."
Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who suffered a concussion in Tampa Bay on Nov. 24, watched the Sabres’ morning skate from the bench Monday. The 19-year-old defenseman has missed the past four games after being elbowed in the head by Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak.
Dahlin’s presence during the skate is a notable development, however, Krueger told the media the former first overall draft pick is not on the verge of returning to the Sabres' lineup. Dahlin has one goal among 16 points in 24 games this season.
"It’s still in the step by step," Krueger said when asked if Dahlin began off-ice workouts. "Off-ice is the word and the key, so that one is an injury like Okposo’s, where we need to be really careful and take little baby steps at a time. It’s good to see him here and we hope that the healing continues, but he’s still a ways away."
Sabres prospect Dylan Cozens was one of 31 players named to Canada’s selection camp roster in preparation for the IIHF World Junior Championship. Cozens, who was drafted seventh overall by Buffalo in June, can earn a roster spot when the camp is held Dec. 9-12 in Oakville, Ontario.
Entering Monday, Cozens ranked third in the Western Hockey League with 40 points in 26 games for the Lethbridge Hurricanes. He has 18 goals with 22 assists and a plus-8 rating while winning 53 percent of his faceoffs.
Defenseman Miska Kukkoknen also was named to Finland’s selection camp roster. Kukkonen, a 19-year-old drafted in the fifth round by the Sabres in 2018, has two assists in 18 games for Lukko in Liiga, Finland’s top professional league.
Defensemen Mattias Samuelsson and Ryan Johnson, both from the United States, goalie Erik Portillo (Sweden) and forward Matej Pekar (Czech Republic) are among Sabres prospects who could represent their respective countries at the tournament, which will be held Dec. 26 through Jan. 5.