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Kyle Okposo, Sabres get a jump-start on team bonding with a Bills road trip


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When Kyle Okposo signed a one-year contract to return to the Buffalo Sabres, he did so with a serious belief that this team can contend for more than just a spot in the playoffs.

So as training camp approached, Okposo had an idea. Rather than wait for the beginning of the season to get the team-building process started, he wanted to start things early this year. He and his wife organized a team trip down to the Buffalo Bills’ Week 1 game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.

“I wanted to get us together so that when we hit the ground running in camp there wasn’t a bonding process that needed to happen,” Okposo said. “When we hit camp, it’s full go. The last few years have been about building bonds, setting a foundation and finding our identity throughout the season.”

Okposo said the Sabres sent a group of 34 people that included almost every member of the team along with some of the wives and girlfriends. Everybody found their own way to New York and stayed at the same place. Okposo bought the tickets and he and his wife, Danielle, found a company to set everything up for the team tailgate before the game.

“The connection between our two organizations from a player level is something I’d like to enhance and grow,” Okposo said.

Okposo said it was a priority to get the families involved as well, because he and his wife want to have a family atmosphere within the team. Last year, when Okposo was named captain, he mentioned the role was one the entire family takes seriously.

“I don’t really do much without her and talking to her first and making sure we’re on the same page,” he said. “The spouses, they go through so much in a season. We’re gone. I have four kids and she’s handling so much of the day-to-day logistics of our family and it’s a lot of stress on her and she’s trying to plan stuff for the family. She’s definitely right there with me.”

The Sabres managed to avoid most of the rain that came through the New York area prior to Monday Night Football, though a few players, including Okposo, had to deal with canceled flights. Newcomer Connor Clifton, a New Jersey native, was able to make the trip. If Clifton grew up a Jets fan, Okposo said he didn’t show it.

“We’ll get him on the right side,” Okposo said.

The Sabres have gone to Bills home games in the past and have typically bonded on lengthy road trips, but they don’t have a lot of multi-game trips early in their schedule this season.

When the team was in California for a three-game road trip last season, Alex Tuch mentioned, “It’s not cliquey. Everybody is going to dinner with everybody.” That led to the team connecting off the ice and playing a lot more loosely on the road. The Sabres had a 25-13-3 record away from home compared to a 17-20-4 record at home.

This team knows expectations are going to be different. They’re still a young team but one that came up just a point short of the playoffs last season. The Eastern Conference didn’t get any easier in the offseason, but the Sabres aren’t going to be sneaking up on anyone this season.

“We know what’s expected and what’s expected is at a higher level than it’s been in the past,” Okposo said. “So let’s get the team bonding out of the way. That’s still an important thing, but that’s why you lay the foundation for a couple of years so you have that set up and then you can push hard and go from there.”

For the last few weeks, the Sabres’ veterans have been holding captain’s practices to get back into rhythm before training camp opens. What has Okposo most encouraged is that the Sabres don’t need to overhaul anything this season. They added two defensemen in Clifton and veteran Erik Johnson. Devon Levi will have a chance to take over the bulk of the starts in net as a rookie. But otherwise, the core of this team is intact.

Culture can be a buzzword in professional sports, but Okposo believes the Sabres’ culture is truly changing. “We’ve become a team. It started off the ice first and then slowly progressed on the ice,” he said at the end of last season. “That’s the first time in a long time I think we can say that about our squad here.”

And while the Monday Night Football field trip was just a few days spent hanging out with teammates, it was also an intentional effort to make sure that culture doesn’t slip.

“It’s kind of the norm, what I think is normal and should happen in the NHL is you should have your culture set,” Okposo said. “Your culture should be set and you should be able to interchange pieces as you go and have that culture not be affected. That’s how strong it should be and that’s what I think great organizations have. We still have work to do in that aspect but I think we’re getting there. Hopefully we can continue to take steps this year because we know that’s the expectation.”

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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