Veteran Kyle Okposo wins Stanley Cup with Panthers 18 years after being drafted

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Kyle Okposo used to rollerblade around his driveway as a kid, pretending he was a pro hockey player competing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

It's a memory he has kept with him throughout his NHL career — one so special to him that he shared it with his 8-year-old son just a day before his Florida Panthers faced the Edmonton Oilers in the decisive Game 7.

“I said, ‘How special that you’re going to be able to go to the game,'” Okposo recalled telling his son. "You’ve got to embrace it. You’ve got to just smile and enjoy it. ... You’ve got to embrace every second of it.”

At times throughout his 17-year career, mostly with the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres, Okposo thought that dream might never become a reality.

But the Panthers acquired him from Buffalo at the trade deadline, giving him one more shot at ending his career with the trophy that has long eluded him. And on Monday night, exactly 18 years since the Islanders selected him with the seventh pick in the 2006 draft, Okposo's moment finally came as the Panthers beat the Oilers 2-1 to cap a thrilling series.

“What an experience," Okposo said, "what a moment with these guys. I took a leap of faith three-and-a-half months ago and this is what it was for. I wanted a chance to win and these guys, they’re just an incredible bunch. We did everything to win. We did it the hard way. ”

The 37-year-old Okposo entered the matchup with 1,051 career games under his belt and 40 playoff appearances. He'd made 24 postseason appearances with New York but never got past the second round.

Okposo, who had two assists in 16 games of these playoffs, played in the first five games of the series before being scratched for Nick Cousins in Florida's Game 6 loss. He returned to the Panthers' fourth line on Monday, playing alongside Ryan Lomberg and Kevin Stenlund.

A Minnesota native, Okposo spent his first nine seasons with the Islanders before signing with Buffalo in free agency in July 2016 in hopes of helping the Sabres become championship contenders.

That never happened in his nine seasons there, as the Sabres never quite played up to their potential. Buffalo extended the franchise’s league-record playoff drought to a 13th season in 2023 and missed the postseason again this year.

Okposo, once a first-liner who has recorded four 20-goal seasons, said he nearly retired at the end of last season. He came back to be an example of perseverance for his children, and the Panthers gave him the best opportunity to do that.

“I almost retired, and they’re a big reason why I didn’t," said Okposo, whose kids held each of his hands as he took victory laps on the ice after the game. "I wanted to have one more crack at it, and I just wanted to put myself in the best position to do this. The fact that they’re here, and they’re able to experience it with me, it means everything.”

When the final buzzer sounded, Okposo joined his Panthers teammates on the ice. They embraced, pumped their fists toward fans who were screaming with joy, and they went to lift the championship trophy.

Okposo was one of the first ones to touch it. He smiled as he clasped his hands around the cup, and his teammates cheered him on, each of them understanding how long it took for him to get there.

“It’s something you work your whole life towards,” Okposo said, “trying to win that trophy. All the workouts. All the time spent, and the grind that it takes to try to be the best version of yourself. When you hoist something like that with a group of guys like this, it’s all worth it.”


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Alanis Thames, The Associated Press