KopiStar – Slovenian Superstar in NHL
Slowly skating around the ice moments after defeating the New Jersey Devils (6-1) in game six, centre Anže Kopitar holds aloft the Stanley Cup trophy for an appreciative, sold out crowd as they celebrate the Los Angeles Kings’ first National Hockey League title after a 45 year wait. The Slovenian becomes misty eyed at the joy of realising a lifelong dream and of just how far he has travelled to reach the pinnacle of his sport.
It all started when his father, Matjaž, a former player who had competed in three World Championships (in the B and C pools) for both Yugoslavia and Slovenia in the early 1990s and is also an accomplished coach, built an ice rink in their backyard when Anže was four and taught him to skate.
In 2002 Kopitar began playing for the youth team of his hometown, HK Acroni Jesenice. His emerging talent was immediately apparent. Dividing his time between the team’s under-18 and junior clubs whilst also playing in games for the senior team, HK Kranjska Gora of the Slovenian Hockey League, the teenager dominated and led all competitors in scoring, fueling the youngster’s dreams of playing professionally.
Realising that the skill level in his native country was on the brink of world class level, Kopitar decided that if he wanted to take his hockey career to the ultimate, he would have to leave his homeland. Accepting an offer to play in Sweden for Södertälje SK, Kopitar quickly became a star playing for their junior team and led the league in scoring with 49 points (28 goals, 21 assists) from 30 games. For the kid from Jesenice it was a step closer to his dream of playing in the sport’s top league, the NHL.
After just one season in Sweden, Kopitar, ranked the top European skater by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau, was chosen eleventh overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2005 NHL entry draft. Kopitar signed an entry-level contract with the Kings, but played in Sweden for another season before making his NHL debut on 6 October 2006 against the Anaheim Ducks, where he scored two goals. After a brilliant rookie season, being awarded the Mark Bavis Memorial Award as the best first-year member of the Kings and named the King’s Most Popular Player, the young man was on his way. Following some lean years when the team had poor results and often finished closer to the bottom of the standings than the top, fast forward to 2012.
Ranked low in the West Conference when veteran Darryl Sutter took over the LA Kings, one could sense a change as a mix of young players, a wily, disciplined coach and the arrival of a few veterans began to turn things around, the altered chemistry producing an air of confidence.
“At our lowest moments I think the biggest thing was that no-one ever turned on anyone else. Everybody stuck with it,” according to Kings goalie, Jonathan Quick. “You’d go through five, six-game losing streaks, guys were still encouraging, still competing in practice. One just can’t say enough about the resiliency it took to get through those times in the season and still make the playoffs”.
The timing of the team coming together couldn’t have been better, it was in the playoffs where it all clicked with one historic run to glory. The eighth seeded team in the West proceeded to bury each opponent, one by one like a building avalanche, wiping out Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix and then finally the New Jersey Devils in the finals. They did it with guile, finesse, power, toughness and resilience and after defeating the New Jersey Devils, 6-1, in final game to win the Stanley Cup with help from a sellout crowd of 18,858 hungry for the crown and spurring their team on with chants of “Go Kings Go!” and “We Want the Cup!”, their star centre summed it all up.
“We (Kings) have been at the bottom of the league and now for us to be at the top and win it and to achieve my dream with great teammates, in front of our home crowd and my family and friends here to share it with me, it is an unbelievable feeling, even better than I imagined it would be,” said a beaming Kopitar as he handed the trophy to a teammate whilst soaking up the roar of the crowd.
So what does a young man from Jesenice do after achieving his dream? Well, like any other 24 year-old might say, “That was fun. I can get used to this”.
But how good is Kopitar at just 24?
A two-time All-Star, Kopitar has been named the Kings’ Most Valuable Player three times (2008, 2010, 2011) and has been the team’s leading scorer for the last five seasons. Ninth on the Kings’ career list with 271 assists and eleventh in goals with 163, the centre also holds the Kings’ record for consecutive games played, playing 325 until he broke an ankle in 2011.
Kopitar’s talent has not gone unnoticed by fans. Los Angeles Times readers voted him a member of its Top 10 Kings Players of All-Time, a list that includes Wayne Gretzky, Marcel Dionne and Luc Robitaille. The Kings 2012 crown promises to take them to a new level. With an obviously talented young nucleus and only a few free agents, Los Angeles is in a very good position to defend the Stanley Cup next year and in the foreseeable future. Even the legendary Wayne Gretzky states that picking Kopitar was one of the keys that transformed his former team into a Stanley Cup contender. A tribute from one of hockey’s all-time greats is more than enough to spur the first Slovenian to win a Stanley Cup the dream of getting another.
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