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Old 12-21-2006, 03:32 AM   #58
Obi-Wan Phillips
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LOS ANGELES -- Anze Kopitar isn't only making his mark on the ice.

In the City of Angels, somewhere the Los Angeles Kings hotshot rookie centre is already being immortalized.

Cropping up around town is graffiti of his likeness, spreading the word of the city's newest sensation.

"I've seen pictures of it," said the teen - whose first name is pronounced Ahn-jay - embarrassed by the unique attention. "It's a great feeling the fans enjoy watching me and really like me here. That's one good thing. If the fans like you, it's easier to play."

The artwork - his face framed by a star outline, with Anze written beneath - may seem bizarre.

But it can't be denied Kopitar, the pride of Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, is on his way to being the face of the Kings franchise.

Drafted 11th overall in 2005, the first player from his homeland to be selected, he's second only to Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in the rookie points race, with 28 in 34 game going into last night's meeting with the Calgary Flames.

Throw in his excellent command of the English language, ability to fire verbal volleys and respectful attitude, and you can understand why the Kings are so excited.

"He's a great, great kid," said Craig Conroy, who sits beside Kopitar in the dressing room. "He reminds me, the persona, is kinda like Jarome (Iginla): Nice, giving, doesn't like anything, just comes to have fun. It's nice to sit next to him. Better than (Sean) Avery."

Malkin may be the odds-on favourite for the Calder Trophy, but Kopitar's achievements are impressive.

Kopitar one popular King
Fevered interest in top freshman
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Font: * * * * Scott Cruickshank, CanWest News Service
Published: Wednesday, December 20, 2006
LOS ANGELES -- If photographic evidence on the Internet is to be trusted, interest in Anze Kopitar is reaching mania levels.

Apparently -- and these pictures do look authentic -- boosters of the Los Angeles Kings are so pumped by Kopitar's scoring exploits this season that they've taken to spray-painting his image, in bunches, onto concrete surfaces around town.

The stencil is Kopitar's face, wearing a crown and encircled by stars, with ANZE thick-lettered across the bottom.

"Really? I haven't seen it," says Craig Conroy, the rookie sensation's dressing-room neighbour. "[The popularity] has begun slowly. He's the future of the franchise. A great, great kid. It's fun to sit next to him."

A few feet away, Kopitar admits that he's heard about the graffiti tributes.

"But I don't really want to talk about it," says the 19-year-old Slovenian in impeccable English. "Well, obviously, it's a great feeling that the fans enjoy watching me. They really like me here, so that's a really good point. If the fans like you, it's easier to play because you know that everyone's cheering for you."

Even if web-posting fanatics are leg-pulling, the Kings are not. Appreciation comes genuine.

Only one freshman is producing more than Kopitar -- a 6-4, 220-pounder who's nudging toward a point-per-game pace -- and that's Pittsburgh Penguins phenom Evgeni Malkin.

Of course, there's more than on-ice success at play.

Handling NHL pressure as a teenager and living on his own as a newcomer in a sprawling American city are challenges that Kopitar must meet. So far, no problem.

He attends Los Angeles Lakers matches -- countryman Sasha Vujacic plays for the locals -- and, recently, he's been showing his mom, Mateja, and little brother, Gasper, 14, the So-Cal sights.

"It's nice to have some family around with Christmas here," says the 11th pick at the 2005 draft. "Sometimes, it gets to the point where you get a little homesick and you miss everybody. But you've got to battle through it because I'm here for hockey."

Kopitar had shone at the 2005 training camp, but returned to Europe to fulfil a contractual obligation in Sweden.

This time, he's not budging.

"Obviously, my dream came true," says Kopitar. "I never imagined starting off the year like I did. It was pretty big [in Slovenia] when I made the team. I guess I'm pretty famous back home."
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