Inner-city recruiting continues to wane

The road to major college hockey doesn’t go through the Twin Cities like it used to.

Ben Goessling

Michele Okposo has seen the way the children swamp her son, Kyle Okposo, whenever he’s skating at a St. Paul rink or dropping off an old pair of skates at a used sporting goods store.

And she can’t help but think the 17-year-old is perfect for what’s coming next.

When Kyle Okposo, a junior forward at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minn., joins Minnesota’s men’s hockey team in fall 2006, he will become the first black hockey player ever to play for the Gophers, providing a much-needed shot of diversity to a sport with a striking lack of it.

Kyle Okposo hails from St. Paul and is also the first Gophers recruit to list one of the Twin Cities as his hometown since former Gophers Matt Koalska and Troy Riddle joined the team in 2000.

“He goes up to the rinks in the wintertime, and all the kids from the neighborhood hope to see him,” Michele Okposo said. “I think the recognition of him being an African-American and being from the inner city will be huge. One of his favorite books as a child was Kirby Puckett’s ‘Be the Best You Can Be,’ and this has the same kind of feel to it.”

In many ways, Kyle Okposo will be unique to the Gophers and college hockey.

But in others, he’ll be all too familiar.

While several Gophers players have played for inner-city hockey programs, the last to graduate from a Minneapolis or St. Paul high school and play a game was defenseman Mike Lyons. Recruited out of Johnson High School in St. Paul by former coach Doug Woog, Lyons played one season for current coach Don Lucia in 1999-2000.

Granted, that trend owes plenty to the ever-growing number of precollege options, which include the U.S. National Team Development Program, prep schools such as Shattuck-St. Mary’s and junior hockey.

But it also stems from a dying support for inner-city high school hockey, which has been dwindling on the state scene for the last 10 years.

In the 1960s and 1970s, programs such as Johnson High School and Southwest High School in Minneapolis dominated the local hockey landscape. But the last inner-city school to even win a consolation championship in the state tournament was Minneapolis Edison High School in 1994, and no city team has qualified for the state tournament since 1995.

“When I was a kid, the parks were just packed full of kids skating,” said Riddle, a member of two national-championship teams at Minnesota. “Now, you won’t find but one or two kids there.”

On the way out

For players such as Kyle Okposo, Riddle and Koalska, the road usually splits around age 16.

That’s when the private schools and hockey academies start calling, forcing players to choose between the program they grew up with and a chance to get noticed by major colleges.

“At certain times, you just have to be selfish – and not in an arrogant way,” said Koalska, who graduated from Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood, Minn., but added he would have gone to Como Park High School in St. Paul if he’d stayed in the city school system. “People are going to say whatever they want, but you can’t worry about if people are pissed at you.”

For Kyle Okposo, leaving home for Shattuck-St. Mary’s was simply what he needed to do if he wanted to play for the program that had been his favorite since childhood.

“I used to go to sleep with their trading cards next to my bed, and I memorized all the stats of guys like Jordan Leopold and Erik Westrum,” Kyle Okposo said. “I looked at a couple other schools, but I always wanted to play for Minnesota.”

In an era when the best opportunities almost always involve a change of address, the prospect of moving to play an already expensive sport spells a dead end for some players.

Of the 26 players on Minnesota’s team this season, only Garrett Smaagaard went from his home high school to the Gophers – and he graduated from local powerhouse Eden Prairie.

An inner-city athlete wanting to play major college hockey often doesn’t have that luxury.

“That’s what’s kind of sad about it,” Riddle said. “Hockey’s not exactly a cheap sport, and if you haven’t dedicated your life to it, it’s tough to catch on.”

Taking back the city

While the days of Minneapolis and St. Paul being hockey hotbeds are long gone, several local programs are attempting to start over.

John Foley, a former youth pastor at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, started the DinoMights program in 1995 as an outreach to children ages 7 to 15 in the Central neighborhood of the city.

Approximately 70 percent, Foley said, come from low-income families.

“We offer tutoring, Bible studies and community service; hockey is just part of what we do,” Foley said. “It started as a Rollerblade night for the kids, and we went from there.”

The program is a member of the NHL Diversity Task Force, and it fields four teams made up primarily of minority students.

Most of the equipment is donated, and the program rents it out to players for the season.

But even Foley is struggling to keep players.

With an onrush of new developments in the neighborhood, increasing property values have sent many families to the first-ring suburbs in search of affordable housing, and Foley said he knows his time with players isn’t a given anymore.

“The ghetto’s not the ghetto, and the city’s not the city anymore,” Foley said. “Three or four years is still good. But it’s not as long as you’d like.”

When he arrives in 2006, Kyle Okposo won’t represent a complete change from the status quo. He will, however, come to the Gophers with a background different from any player Lucia has ever recruited.

And he’s ready for that.

“A lot of kids know who I am, and it’s great to be able to give something back to the area I grew up in,” he said. “If I have success at Minnesota, I can show a lot of kids it can be done.”