Kopitar no stranger in a strange land
As a youngster, Anze Kopitar would wake up in the morning, walk out on the balcony of his familyís home in Jesenice, a town of about 21,000 people on the Adriatic Sea. Kopitar says it's not unlike a young boy growing up in North America with his nose pressed against the window, looking into the distance. Only Anze wanted to see more than just the countryside in his native Slovenia, which gained its independence and split from Yugoslavia in 1991. He wondered what was out there in the distance beyond the tunnel that separated the former Yugoslavia and Austria for him.
"I was five minutes from Austria and 25 minutes from Italy, but ..."
Kopitar paused to reflect on the whole big world that his family helped him reach, from the hockey rink his dad built for him to learn to skate and refine his skills, to the discipline he learned working at his mom's restaurant, to the insistence of his grandmother, a schoolteacher, that Anze take English as a second language.
Anze Kopitar wasnít dreaming about the NHL when he was growing up in the tiny border town of Jesenice. His parents wouldnít let him stay up at night to watch any NHL games that might be shown on Slovenian TV. That didnít stop Anze from waking up in the morning and getting on-line to study the scores and stories of a game that seemed so far off.
Kopitar grew up reading about how Sergei Fedorov defected from his Russian team in Seattle before the Goodwill Games in 1990. He watched and followed Fedorovís career with the Detroit Red Wings. He dreamed that he might someday also make his way to the NHL.
"It was really helpful to have a dad who knew so much about hockey," Anze said. "He gave me great advice. I remember we spent a lot of time watching old tapes. Weíd watch different NHL players, Fedorov was one of my favorites. Iíd watch his stride, his skills, his discipline among others. Then my dad and I would try to work on certain parts of my game and use the tapes as a learning tool."
A few minutes with Kopitar and you come away thinking heís 19 going on about 30. Heís bright, outgoing, smart and always looking to challenge himself to do more. The problem some European players have with adjusting to the culture, the language, the bigness of everything over here doesnít seem to affect Anze. Nothing seems to bother him.
Like his first game in the NHL, Oct. 6 at Anaheim, when, midway through the second period, Kopitar took a breakout pass from teammate Dustin Brown in stride. He looked up for an instant and saw All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger in his way to the net. Instead of pausing to wonder what he might do, Anze blew past Pronger, then put a nifty move on Ducks goaltender J.S. Giguere and scored his first NHL goal.
"I knew it was Pronger, but I didnít want to think about it. I told myself going into the game that I wasnít going to be scared or nervous, so I just reacted quickly the way Iíd normally react to that kind of situation," he said, then he smiled and added, "I didnít get scared until I watched it on replay after the game and saw exactly what I did ... and who I beat."
Actually, Kopitar scored twice in that opening-night loss to Anaheim and then he followed up that debut with three assists in a 4-1 triumph over St. Louis at Los Angeles.
At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Kopitar is the big, skilled center with leadership ability that every team wants. But the shred of mystery over coming from Slovenia enabled Anze to slip out of the top five or six in the draft to the Los Angeles Kings with the 11th pick in the first round of the 2005 Entry Draft.
"Anze was in our training camp a year ago," said Andy Murray, currently the coach of the St. Louis Blues, but then Kings coach. "He was our best center in camp. He could skate, pass and shoot. He had the whole package. We wanted him to play for us right away, but he had a commitment to play one more year for his team in Sweden.
"Let me tell you: There were a lot of tears shed by our coaching staff last September when we had to let Anze go."
Obviously, he was worth the wait for the Kings. Kopitar has ranked second only to Pittsburgh Evgeni Malkin among rookie scorers in the NHL.
Kopitar is a very special player.
"The first time I saw Anze Kopitar he stood out as a talent and a difference maker at the World Junior Championships, when he was just 16," said Toronto Maple Leafs scout Craig Button. "He had five goals in five games. But from the first time I saw him to today, itís clear that his biggest asset is how he challenges himself to be better and how he makes the players around him better.
"Without his desire and passion and skill for the game, Slovenia wouldnít have stayed in the ĎAí Pool of that tournament. He willed them to respectability."
Kopitar has ranked second only to Pittsburgh Evgeni Malkin among rookie scorers in the NHL.
Matjaz Kopitar realized that, at 15, Anze was already playing in a men's league, and it was obvious he was at a crossroads and needed a bigger challenge.
"I reached my goals in Slovenia," Anze recalled, "so I knew I had to go somewhere else and step forward. It was a big challenge, because I had to leave home and live on my own. I really missed my momís cooking."
But his hunger for the NHL grew.
First, he went to Sodertalje, Sweden, to play, with a junior affiliate. But then quickly graduated to the Swedish Elite League when he was just 17.
If it seems like this is a kid who was poured into a hockey-only world. But he also played soccer and basketball. And, oh yes, youíve got to hear about his job at his momís restaurant, which specializes in pasta and steak.
"My mom made sure I worked hard, but also had some fun," Anze laughed, who would take orders sometimes, but ...
"Some of the waitresses werenít strong enough to handle more than a couple of plates," Kopitar said. "Three or four plates filled with pasta or with a huge steak got too heavy for them. But I got to be good enough that I could carry about four plates at a time."
And the balance from those plates ...
"Yeah, it didnít hurt my balance on skates, either," Anze joked.
And in school, Kopitar not only worked on his native Slovenian language, but he added English and German to his repertoire.
"Grandma was right," Kopitar said. "There are so many things knowing different languages can open up to you in life."
In Los Angeles, Anze Kopitar feels right at home. He lives in Hermoso Beach and heís gained a bit of home with his friendship with Los Angeles Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic, who is one of a half-dozen Slovenian players in the NBA.
That confidence living away from home came with some great advice from his junior coach, Per Nygards.
"Iíll never forget what he told me," said Kopitar. "He said, ĎDonít hope. Make things happen. You can only hope to win the lottery.í "
Clearly, the Kings must feel like they won the lottery with Kopitar making a difference for them nearly every night.
"Heís already our go-to guy and heís only 19," said defenseman Rob Blake. "He plays more than 20 minutes a night, in all situations, and he never seems to have a bad game."
"You're used to seeing young players come in, especially offensive players, and they're only good with the puck on offense," added captain Mattias Norstrom. "With Anze, he plays the center position like a throwback player: He's very responsible defensively, so you find him a lot of the time on the defensive side of the puck, coming up on the ice.
"Offensively, most pucks come through him: Heís like the classic playmaker, dishing the puck off to his wingers. Itís funny, but if you look at his stats, you'd think maybe he was cheating a little bit to create offense, but I'd really say the opposite. He's responsible in his own end and he takes care of that before he goes on offense."
Coach Marc Crawford paid the ultimate compliment to his rookie center.
"Heís our most dangerous player on most nights," said Crawford. "Heís really reliable for such a young age and what a competitor. He really likes to challenge opponents one-on-one ... and he wins most of those battles."
Then, Crawford went to a baseball comparison.
"In baseball, the experts like to talk about the elite players in the game being five-tool players (refering to those who can hit, run, hit for power, play defense and can throw)," Crawford said. "Well, Anze is already a five-tool player in our game."
And this youngster is having the time of his life. Recently, the fun-loving Kopitar took his mother and younger brother, Gasper, who were in town for Christmas, on a tour of Hollywood, the beaches, Universal Studios, Disneyland. They went everywhere.
"Itís amazing how lucky Iíve been," Kopitar said.
Lucky? Not this young man, who has the Midas Touch. Now, when he wakes up in the morning and looks out the window, he must enjoy knowing how old dreams have been reached ... and finding new dreams that are oh-so-close to being conquered as well.