By Larry Wigge
Darryl Sutter was GM of the Calgary Flames when Anze Kopitar was selected with the 11th pick overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He wished he had a chance to sign Jesenice, Slovenia, native, but the Los Angeles Kings got lucky enough to draft him.
In the ensuing years, Sutter got to know the big center as a fierce competitor and a No. 1 center most teams would love to have. Now, that Sutter is now the coach of Kings, he thanks his lucky stars.
"He is a big No. 1 center with skill and talent. Most other teams would drool over having him," Sutter explained. "He plays the minutes big minutes on offense and chips in on defense.
"He's a presence ... all the times."
Sutter points to the coaching of Andy Murray and Terry Murray as helping to make Kopitar so well adjusted. Four years ago, under Terry Murray, the big center sacrificed some offense to learn how to play the checking game. After that, Kopitar grew into the skill and hard working aspects and became a complete player.
"He's big and strong," Terry Murray said of Kopitar, after recently being being fired as coach of the Kings. "When he's on his game, there's not many players that can take the puck away from him.
"He's that powerful, that big, that strong. When he makes plays to the net like he can, you just say 'What a powerful player.' "
Kopitar had 17 goals and 30 assists this season. He had managed five straight 20-goal seasons -- he topped the 30-goal mark in his second season with 32 and 34 in 2009-10.
Murray and Sutter never really knew about his dream to play in the NHL. They knew about his intellectual label, that he could speak five languages -- Slovenian, Serbian, German, Swedish and English, something his grandmother, who was a schoolteacher, told him at an early age would be important to him.
As a youngster, Anze Kopitar would wake up in the morning, walk out on the balcony of his family’s home in Jesenice, a town of about 21,000 people on the Adriatic Sea. Kopitar says its not unlike a young boy growing up in North America with his nose pressed against the window, looking in 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 to reach, from the hockey rink Matjaz, his dad, built for him to learn to skate and refine his skills and where he taught him a lot of the 1-on-1 drills he used as a hockey coach in Austria, to the discipline he learned working at his mom, Mateja’s, restaurant to the insistence of his grandmother, a schoolteacher, that Anze take English as a second language.
Anze Kopitar wasn’t dreaming about the NHL, when he was growing up in the tiny border town of Jesenice. His parents wouldn’t let him stay up at night to watch any NHL games that might be shown on Slovenian TV. That didn’t 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 Fedorov’s 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. We’d watch different NHL players, Fedorov was one of my favorites. I’d watch his stride, his skills, his disciplined 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 he’s 19 going on about 30. He’s 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 doesn’t seem to affect Anze. Nothing seems to bother him.
Like his first game in the NHL, October 6 2006, 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 didn’t want to think about it. I told myself going into the game that I wasn’t going to be scared or nervous, so I just reacted quickly the way I’d normally react to that kind of situation," he said. Then he smiled and added, "I didn’t 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 6-4, 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.
"Anze was in our training camp a year ago," said Andy Murray of 2005-06 when he came to camp with the Kings. "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 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 Craig Button, former Calgary Flames GM. "He had five goals in five games. But, from the first time I saw him to today, it’s 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 wouldn’t have stayed in the ‘A’ Pool of that tournament. He willed them to respectability."
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 mom’s 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. His brother, Gasper (also hockey player) and grandparents were once basketball players. And, oh yes, you’ve got to hear about his job at his mom’s restaurant, which specializes in pasta and steak but you can find a lot of other foods as well.
"My mom made sure I worked hard, but also had some fun," Anze laughed, who would take orders sometimes, but ...
"Some of the waitresses weren’t 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 didn’t 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."
He junior coach, Per Nygards, gave him lot of confidence to survive away from home.
"I’ll never forget what he told me," said Kopitar. "He said, ‘Don’t hope. Make things happen. You can only hope to win the lottery.’ "
Andy Murray, Terry Murray and Daryl Sutter were surprised to see the strength and confidence Kopitar came over hear with. But each one of them looked at the talent and skill as limitless.
Clearly, the Kings must feel like they won the lottery with Kopitar making a difference for them nearly every night.
Sergie Fedorov was Kopitar's favorite. He defected form Russia at the Goodwill Games in Seattle. Anze Kopitar didn't have to defect, but finding his way to the NHL via Slovenia and Sweden was a tremendous way to go. Learning English was a plus.
"My grandmother and grandfather were strong people," said Kapitar.
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.
Anze Kopitar clearly is a difference-maker.