Every time when you get to share a place in the hockey history with Wayne Gretzky, there has to be positive emotions and celebration, but for Anze Kopitar it wasn’t like that in the evening of 13 December 2016. His NHL team, the Los Angeles Kings, had been defeated 6-3 by the Buffalo Sabres at the KeyBank Center on Tuesday. It was the first game this season that the Kings led by two goals and lost.
The start was quite good for captain Kopitar, who scored in the third minute to end his 16-game goal drought. It was a long-waiting goal, his 246th in the NHL regular seasons, tying him for sixth in the Kings’ history with Gretzky. Anze’s last tally was against Columbus on 25th October.
The mood in the Kings locker room was somber and nobody talked about the milestone goal. This was the first stop of a seven-game road trip in 11 days for the team, which is tied for the eight spot in the Western conference with 30 points in 28 games.
The month of September was quite an adventurous and successful for the 29-year-old but he had difficulties scoring goals in the NHL regular season and missed five games in the middle of November with an upper-body injury.
“It was a very different off-season for sure. Not so often you can play a dozen of games on the world stage before the NHL season starts. I used that opportunity to get ready for the new season. Definitely it didn’t hurt my preparation,” said Kopitar, who had 12 international games in September – three with Slovenia in the Final Olympic Qualification (1-4 September) followed by three exhibition games with Team Europe and six more at the World Cup of Hockey where he made it to the final with the team.
Kopitar helped Slovenia gain a spot at the Olympics for the second consecutive time after the tournament win in Minsk, Belarus, where Slovenia beat Poland, 6-1, Denmark, 3-0, and Belarus, 3-2 in a shootout. He scored three goals in the first game and had one assist a piece in the next two. The decisive game had a dramatic turn of events after the hosts came back from a two-goal deficit. In the shootout Kopitar scored, but the game winning goal was tallied by Rok Ticar, who finished the tournament with three goals too.
“It was great for us – Slovenia made it to the Olympics again. We proofed that it’s more than a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. So there has to be to be something there. We have a really great group of guys, who care and take pride of playing for our country, a really non-hockey country,” Kopitar explained his feelings after Minsk.
The population of Slovenia is just under two millions and there are only 141 registered senior hockey players, but that doesn’t stop the national team to make miracle after a miracle. It was the Cinderella story of Sochi 2014, where Slovenia defeated Slovakia (3-1) and Austria (4-0) to advance to the quarter-finals. In the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship the team, even without its leader Kopitar, took a point from Canada before losing in overtime.
“First and foremost is the belief that we can do it. This group of players has been a part of such nice achievements playing in the World Championships as well. We were close to win important games, but we couldn’t. So it was great to do it in the Olympic Qualifications both times. Maybe we have no more than 30 elite players to choose from and we were able to do it, which shows the character of the team,” said Kopitar, who is the first-ever native of Slovenia to play in the NHL. He was drafted #11 by the Kings in 2005 and plays his 11th season in the league, all of them with number 11 on the back.
Kopitar scored two goals in his first NHL game – against Anaheim on 6th October 2006, and after his last tally has 699 points (246+453) in 787 regular season games. After the 2015/16 season he became the first Kings player to be awarded with the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) and also won the Lady Bing Trophy (best combination of sportsmanship and ability). He is the recipient of the Kings Leading Scorer Award for nine straight seasons (longest in team history), which shows his versatility and remarkable combination of skills.
“He is a unique player. I remember watching him during his draft year. This was the year of the NHL lockout, so I had a chance to see some of the young top players that year,” Dave Taylor, the former general manager of Los Angeles Kings recalled. “His father was a coach and you could tell that by the way Anze played. He had a great understanding of the game. And when you look at his physical tools, he probably weights 230-235 pounds, such a big body, very strong, has great hands and instincts for the game, so regardless from where he came from, Kopitar had all the tools to be a very, very good player.”
Kopitar already had set many Kings records such as most consecutive games played (330, from 21st March 2007 to 26th March 2011) and after signing an eight-year contract extension on 16th January this year, he can finish his career on the team’s top of all time games played, where Taylor is #1 with 1,111.
“After we drafted him, he stayed one more year with Sodertalje SK in the Swedish league and he played against men. I think that was the big development year for him, so when came to Los Angeles as a 19-year-old he was ready to make an impact in the NHL,” said Taylor.
It’s interesting to know whether there will be a Kopitar effect with more kids playing hockey and a government support in Slovenia after his breakthrough in the NHL and the achievements of the national team.
“There is not a whole lot government support by any means. I don’t think there is a big Kopitar effect either. I proofed in some ways that a guy from a small country like Slovenia can make it to the top stage. Hopefully more and more kids will follow, not only from Slovenia, but from other non-hockey countries,” Anze replied.
With Slovenia set for PyeongChang 2018, he still hopes that NHL players will be participating at the next Winter Olympics. “If the NHL’s decision is negative I can’t do anything. But for sure I’m looking forward to the Games in PyeongChang and I’m optimistic that we will be able to play again on the biggest international stage.”
Kopitar had an unbelievable experience at the World Cup of Hockey as Team Europe went to the final series and was close to get a win in the second game against Canada. “It was very exciting for me to have the chance to go head-to-head with the best hockey countries in the world. Obviously winning so many games and going to the final was a lot more fun than I expected,” the two-time Stanley Cup winner said.