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Kyle Okposo’s Long Island roots tug at free agent’s heart

New York Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo speaks

New York Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo speaks with the media as the Islanders wrap up their season at Iceworks in Syosset on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

If this really is goodbye for Kyle Okposo, he can be pleased with what he has left behind. He played a big part in inspiring the chorus at Islanders breakup day on Tuesday, the one that resoundingly said, “I love it here.” Okposo has been a valuable New York Islander and a very proud Long Islander.

“It has become home over the years. I started my family here. We bought a place five years ago when I signed my second contract,” he said after his exit interview at IceWorks in Syosset. “Now I go back home to Minnesota and it’s just different because we’re here for eight, nine months. This is where the roots have grown the deepest.”

He was not the only one feeling that way. Travis Hamonic made the biggest news when he rescinded the trade request that had been triggered by a family health crisis. He said, “I love it here.” Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin, Okposo’s fellow potential free agents, both said basically the same thing.

“Here” is a thorny subject with the Islanders. It is worth noting that they were all standing on Long Island when they said it. Although the team plays home games in Brooklyn, the players live on Long Island and soon will have a spacious new practice facility at Eisenhower Park — ironically and painfully close to Nassau Coliseum.

The economics of pro sports make for tough choices. The Islanders moved to Barclays Center for larger revenue streams (more like torrents). Sometimes teams part with favorite players because of the salary cap. Garth Snow told Newsday’s Arthur Staple on Tuesday: “Obviously now, we have three free agents . . . .we’d love to bring them all back. But in a salary-cap world, it’s probably not a reality for us, in the situation we’re in.”

So, Okposo had a somewhat wistful time Tuesday morning, autographing memorabilia that filled several tables.

“Just signing everything, it could be the last time you’re signing Islanders stuff as a member of the team. It’s a bit of a somber moment. But at the same time I might be back,” he said. “I’m proud of what has happened over the last 10 years since I’ve been a member of this organization. I’m proud of the way that the guys are, and everything that I feel that I’ve had a hand in building here — the culture, just the way things are around here.”

Maybe he is not yet the “elite player” that then-Bridgeport coach Jack Capuano told me he would be the night Okposo scored twice in his home debut for the Sound Tigers in 2008. But the former first-round pick has been darned solid, on and off the ice.

He grew up here, keeping his head up and keeping teammates’ spirits up through tough seasons. He recalled his first visit to IceWorks for rookie camp, peppering assistant equipment manager Richard (Shaky) Krouse with questions such as “What is Yashin like? And DiPietro?” It wasn’t all that long ago that Okposo was just a kid whose oven malfunctioned on Thanksgiving, leaving it to his mom, visiting from Minnesota, to save the day for him and teammates by cooking a turkey on the stove top. Now he is 28, a husband and father of two. Okposo is not a fighter, but he once turned a playoff game in the Islanders’ favor by dropping his gloves.

“He’s such a great person,” John Tavares, his longtime linemate, said. “We roomed together my rookie season, we’ve become very close over the years, spending a lot of time together over the summer. He’s a guy you can really express anything with, whether it’s about the game, or just about life. He’s someone you feel you can trust. A tremendous hockey player, a great leader. Hopefully it works out and he’s back.”

It would not be a terrible idea for the people running the team to consider how much Okposo means to the captain and superstar — and to the Long Islanders who bleed blue and orange. No matter what happens this summer, part of Okposo’s heart always will be with them. He loves it here.

Kyle Okposo’s career regular-season stats with the Islanders:

Games 529

Goals 139

Assists 230

Points 369

Penalty Minutes 310

Plus-minus -60

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