Islanders' Kyle Okposo getting his game back after scary eye injury

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Thursday April 23rd, 2015

UNIONDALE, NY — It’s not only impressive that Kyle Okposo is playing well this postseason, it’s also that he’s playing at all.

On Jan. 19, after having scored five goals in the previous three games, the 27-year-old Islanders forward became very concerned when the blurred vision he’d been experiencing in his left eye turned into pain. Okposo went to a doctor and was told that he would need surgery the next day to repair a detached retina.

(For a breakdown on that injury, how it occurs, its seriousness and treatment, see our interview with Dr. Richard Kaiser, an attending surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia and team ophthalmologist for the NBA's 76ers, at the end of this story.)

While it was in the back of his mind that he might not be able to return for rest of the season, or ever play hockey again, Okposo’s thoughts immediately turned to his family. “I thought about them right away,” he told SI.com after New York’s morning skate on Tuesday. “That first night when I knew I was having surgery the next day, where I didn’t know if I could see again, that was pretty scary. Just for life in general.”

His fears left Okposo unable to imagine not being able “to do the things I want to do with my kids and my family.” He and his wife, Danielle, have a one-year-old daughter, Ellianna, and his face lights up at the mention of her. “I love hanging out with her,” he says. “She’s starting to really have a personality and interact, and it’s just fun to be around her.”

Okposo’s ordeal was made easier by the support he got from his second family, his Islanders teammates, who frequently texted him or checked in on how he was doing during his recovery.

“Anytime you’re hurt it’s tough to be away from the guys,” he says. “You miss the rink and you miss the camaraderie and everyday conversations when you’re sitting here and just chatting with the guys.”

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It has now been six weeks since Okposo returned after missing 22 games. He needed time to recover his confidence and get comfortable on the ice. In 14 regular season games, beginning on March 10, he scored only four goals, with three assists (in the 46 games before his injury, he was on nearly a point-per-game pace: 14-30-44). But in the last four games of that stretch, he showed signs of being ready for the postseason, scoring twice and chipping in two assists. His line for 2014–15 (18-33-51) would have surely been better than his career highs of 27-42-69 from last season had he not been sidelined so long.

Okposo says he spent a lot of the time after his return making sure that he would be mentally prepared for the rugged, “amped up a notch” playoff battles to come. His play so far in the first round has reflected that effort. Delivering the mix of physicality and scoring punch that made him the seventh pick in the 2006 NHL draft, he scored goals in Games 2 and 3 of New York’s series with the Capitals.

In Game 3 on Sunday, he not only scored the Islanders’ lone goal in regulation, he also delivered a big hit that made an impact on the series. Less than four minutes into the first period, he checked Washington forward Eric Fehr into the glass. Fehr did not return to the ice, and did not play in Game 4. He is also expected to miss Game 5 with an upper-body injury.

“I feel good on the ice,” Okposo says. “Just feels good to be playing again. I had 14 games to try and get my feet back under me. I feel like I’ve done that. I feel pretty good out there.”

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Being able to play his game again is no small blessing. In recent years Marc Staal, Manny Malhotra, and Chris Pronger have been hit in the eye by pucks or sticks and missed considerable playing time. The careers of Staal and Malhotra were jeopardized, though they were able to return. Pronger wasn’t so lucky. Neither was Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis.

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After taking a stick to the eye in January 2001, MacInnis suffered a permanent blind spot and was forced to wear a special lens in his glasses. By October ’03, he had to stop playing after he learned that he had a detached retina. He ended up retiring.

One of the league’s most devastating eye injuries was suffered by Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan Berard, who missed an entire season after being blinded in his right eye by a stick during a 2000 game. His retina was detached and he required seven surgeries. Though he eventually made it back to the NHL, his depth perception was affected and he was never the same.

Okposo doesn't know how his injury occurred and there's always the threat of reinjury, but New York captain John Tavares says he’s noticed his teammate’s improved confidence, calling him “all-star caliber” and “one of the top right wingers in the game.” Tavares appreciates the difficulty of coming back from the kind of injury that Okposo suffered, and says the big forward clearly has a good feel for his game once again and is finally getting his timing and rhythm back.

Now trailing three games to two in their series against Washington, New York coach Jack Capuano thinks Okposo’s play will be a key factor if his team is to win the series.

“When you got to have a chance to win a series, your best players have got to be your best players,” Capuano said. “Kyle’s stepped up to the way he’s got to continue to play. He’s got to be physical because he’s a big body. He plays his best hockey when he plays with an edge and he gets pucks to the net. That’s what he’s done in this series so far.”

With Okposo’s vision and game nearly back to where they were before his injury, he and the Islanders know that even if a trip to the second round isn’t in the cards this year, their future looks a lot brighter than it did last January.

Detached retinas and why they occur

Interview with Dr. Richard Kaiser an attending surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital and the team ophthalmologist for the Philadelphia 76ers.

SI.com: How does retinal detachment occur?

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Elsa/Getty Images
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Players who take a direct, blunt trauma to the eye really need an eye exam. They certainly need to be educated.

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