Gopher the gusto
Minnesota's Okposo set to plunge right into pros
By Al Daniel
The curious celestial pucks that have peered over the New York Islanders and Minnesota Golden Gophers for eighteen-odd months have officially frozen –albeit at an eccentric time (then again, this entire saga has featured eccentric elements).
Kyle Okposo –whom the Friar Scribe met and covered during his latter days at Shattuck St. Mary’s School- is finally bent on fastening his blades to Long Island once he returns from the World Junior Championships in the coming week. This means relinquishing the remaining two-and-a-half allotted years of playing for the St. Paul product’s childhood dream college, the University of Minnesota.
And all shortly after the New York front office had at least presented itself as giving him the nod of approval to one more year in the collegiate ranks –none of the roundabout, itching adamancy one often gives to a sizzling prospect.
Odd timing? Maybe so. New England college buffs may be inclined to highlight the recent Brett Motherwell saga at Boston College and declare this a stunning second lightning bolt. Mind you, though, that Motherwell succumbed to a blurry off-and-on water heater that had been nagging him since training camp and took his more anonymous two-way gifts to the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch.
Okposo, meanwhile, had felt the Isles’ management –which canned the man who drafted him, Neil Smith, after six weeks on the job and later concocted a head-scratching 15-year deal with former BU goaltender Rick DiPietro- whispering from the moment he was chosen 7th overall in 2006, a good four months before he first donned the precious Gopher garb. All that trouble to commit to the State of Hockey’s Red Sox/Yankee-level program, and he was reportedly entertaining thoughts of going right for his NHL jersey the second it came out of the oven.
Then, as projected, he applied his distinctive brawn-and-blaze well enough to turn up the Nassau pressure cooker through his freshman campaign (19 goals, 40 points in as many games, and his first of two invitations to the WJC).
Perhaps, given the state of affairs right here and now, the dynamics of today’s game should merely be taken with suspension of disbelief. But moving on, the collective media sphere remains mixed and altogether inconclusive as to whether the Islanders have a glistening stall waiting for Okposo or if –after all the buildup and all the stickers he has tagged on his suitcase- he will charge up a little more whetting time in the minors. Although, the TSN broadcast crew at the World Juniors most recently proclaimed that Okposo is bound for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers after a brief drop-in on his Twin Cities family.
Be it now or later, when he is in The Show, Okposo, who is of partial Nigerian heritage, will be meshing with the tutelage of another revered rink-going minority –Islander coach and Ontarian Ojibwa Ted Nolan. That could make for a fitting little present to mark the forthcoming Golden Anniversary of Willie O’Ree’s debut with the Bruins, which will fall a week from Friday.
And in his last stop overseas before he tries to crack the Islander chart, Okposo (1-4-5 totals for Team USA through four preliminary games) has broadened his viewing window a little more to exhibit his healthy habits of practically craving bruises in the corners, storming to the net with simple ambition, and bringing down the hammer when necessary: a package of vague Gordie Howe inclinations that arouses more modern comparisons to Jarome Iginla.
So maybe the Ice Spirits had this strange timeline forethought for a reason. And maybe Okposo’s path will carry on well enough to help enlighten the image of the black hockey player as more of the gracefully gritty Iginla type rather than the Toughman, stage-hungry Georges Laracque stereotype.
Small Group, Big Impact
Okposo’s temporary –and last- amateur team, captained by none other than Boston University bouncer Brian Strait, steamrolled through much of its drop-in to the Czech Republic before submitting to the ever-energetic Canadian program in Friday’s semi-final, 4-1, and offering a 4-2 bronze medal decision to Russia.
Minus the medal round meltdown –by the halfway mark of the Russia game, coach John Hynes was altering the lines with no bounds- the narrow pool of Hockey East representatives proved to be the Americans’ most productive assets as they fueled 17 goals in four round robin victories. UNH freshman phenom James vanRiemsdyk was assigned to wing BU forward Colin Wilson on the second line for the bulk of the tournament.
vanRiemsdyk, appearing in his second WJC with a much more deciphered mug this time around, topped the final American charts with 11 points and the entire pool through the preliminary round with 10. Point #11 happened to be the lone material highlight against Canada, a late wrap-around goal.
Wilson, thirsting for scouts’ eyes before he will likely enter the 2008 NHL Draft, charged up a team-leading six goals and tied his other winger –2009 Minnesota recruit Jordan Schroeder- for seven total points.
Wilson and vanRiemsdyk collaborated on six goals during the brief US hot streak, climaxing in a 5-3 win over Finland on New Year’s Eve, wherein vanRiemsdyk aided Wilson towards a hat trick before they reversed the roles on a second period insurance goal.
(More) Extra Ice
The Boston College and UNH women’s teams sprinkled their stars around international ponds over break. The BC web site noted that sizzling sophomores Molly Schaus and Kelli Stack and junior Meghan Fardelman spent the last week of 2007 in Lake Placid with their eyes on a World Championship roster spot this spring. The Eagle trio was joined by rival New Hampshire’s Maggie Joyce and Kacey Bellamy there.
The Wildcats also had rookies Courtney Birchard and Jenn Wakefield –who sandwich PC’s Alyse Ruff among the league’s best freshmen scorers- sporting the Maple Leaf at the European Air Canada Cup this week, opposite Swiss UNH ambassadors Julia and Stephanie Marty.
Additionally, the inaugural Women’s World Junior tournament –designed to showcase a vibrant pool of collegiate prospects aged 18 or younger- is set to commence in Calgary Monday, running through Saturday. Friars coach Bob Deraney –along with UNH assistant Erin Whitten Hamlen- will serve up sidekick expertise for American head skipper Katey Stone. In doing so, he will get early interaction with recent two recent NLI signees –forwards Kate Bacon and Ashley Cottrell.
Holiday Hardware Haven
Before everyone along the coast got down to prying one another apart, Hockey East could have used a sound team-of-teams effort to rehydrate its viability on the collective NCAA sphere. And last weekend, the national ranking landscape morphed accordingly as a couple of member schools raided a western bigwig or two in the annual holiday tournament bonanza.
In Tampa, UMass-Amherst gnashed its way to 4-3 and 5-4 (OT) overhauls of the season-long-reckoned Notre Dame and Colorado College, earning them the Lightning College Classic title and dibs on the fifth slot in the country. With that, the question-clad Minutemen –who were nonetheless lodged in USCHO’s ninth row over exam break- improved to 9-3-5 and are now sandwiched between the two powers that they just dealt with.
Scroll down those charts a few notches, say hi to New Hampshire and Northeastern –improved to 7th and 9th overall respectively, the Wildcats inching ahead of North Dakota the most forthright way by splitting a road series with the Sioux- and then look at what may be the league’s most decisively redressed team, Boston College.
The Eagles built on a much-needed, compressing pre-holiday three-game winning streak by usurping Minnesota’s precious home tournament, the Dodge Holiday Classic. Intriguingly, the two Maroon and Gold giants did not even need to cross paths in the process. Instead, BC charged up a set of speaks-for-itself blowouts of Air Force (8-2 final) and RIT (6-0), penning ten skaters on the scoresheet both nights and skating off in volcanic fashion through a five-goal third period in the title game.
Not enough? Well, UMass Lowell –the Friars fast-approaching adversary this coming week- also arrested rival Maine by a 6-0 count to nab the Florida College Classic and upgrade to 14th overall. Meanwhile, the PC Men –dormant all through the past week- made enough of a GLI impression on the USCHO polling panel to attain a season-high 18 honorable mention votes, joining them with nine other near-miss schools just outside the weekly Top 20 vote.
Over in an otherwise idle women’s conference, Connecticut –still knotted for 2nd in the league with the Friars- impressed at the Quinnipiac-based Nutmeg Classic, dumping two intra-state rivals in the host Bobcats and Yale, 3-2, en route to beefing up its overall transcript to 13-4-2.