STOCKHOLM – If all goes well, the Sochi Olympics will have a unique trio of family members on the Slovenian national team. Coach Matjaz Kopitar hopes to be joined by his sons Anze and Gasper.
Matjaz has been coaching for more than a decade after a lengthy playing career, primarily with Jesenice and the Yugoslav national team, while Anze has established himself as one of the best young players in the NHL. He helped the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup last spring.
Gasper, meanwhile, is still 20 years old and helped Slovenia win the qualifying round for the Olympics. Although born in Jesenice, Gasper played his first year of serious midget hockey with the Los Angeles Jr. Kings in 2008-09.
“We all moved together,” Gasper explained of the family’s move to California to be near Anze. “I started playing under-16 AAA. We were playing pretty good teams. There were a lot of guys who played in that league who are now in the NHL or who have been drafted. Beau Bennett [LA Jr Kings, 2007-09] plays with Pittsburgh. Shane McColgan [2008-09] was drafted to the Rangers. Rocco Grimaldi in Florida. It was a good league to get to know North American hockey better.”
The hockey world being evermore small, Gasper was scouted by teams in the CHL and was selected into the midget draft by the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. He quickly chose the junior hockey route over NCAA college.
“Most of the guys went to college after being drafted into the CHL,” he said. “For me, the WHL was the best option at the time. I learned a lot there and then moved on to the USHL. It was all a good experience. This year was my first pro year up here with Mora [in Sweden]. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Gasper’s development was clearly aided and abetted by his father and brother and the hockey environment he inhabited during his teen years. “They helped a lot,” he enthused. “My dad was an assistant coach when I played AAA, so he was there at every practice. Anze helped me a lot, too, by watching games on the internet, tell me what was good and what was wrong.”
The two brothers played a lot together this past season because Gasper had developed enough and Anze was available as a result of the labour conflict.
“I didn’t skate with him in Los Angeles, but during the lockout he played in Mora with me, which was really cool,” Gasper said. “That was the first organized hockey we played together. We played on a line with Bobby Ryan from Anaheim. And we played in Slovenia together in November at the Olympic Pre-Qualification.”
After parts of three years in the WHL and USHL, during which time he also played at three U20 events, Division I, Gasper received an offer to play with second-tier team Mora in Sweden, an offer he couldn’t resist (Anze had played for Södertalje during his early development).
“Mora was one of the first places to contact me after my last season, and I knew they had a young team which would be good in the next couple of years,” Gasper explained. “I wanted to be part of something that would be more than just one year. I signed for two years. We’re going to have a really good team this year.”
Unlike Anze, though, Gasper hasn’t been drafted into the NHL and hasn’t received much attention from North America.
“There’s always hope, but I have to play good hockey and get known,” he admits.
It the meantime, he will work hard and train for a spot on the Olympic team next February in Sochi, where he can play alongside Anze and with father Matjaz behind the bench. “It’s going to be cool in the Olympics,” Gasper agreed. “It’s the first time for Slovenia to qualify in hockey, so we’ll see how it pans out.”