The Olympic hockey tournament took on even greater meaning and life starting in 1998 when the NHL decided to participate, closing down the league for two and a half weeks to allow most of its players to travel to Nagano for the tournament.
If, however, someone in 1998 had ever suggested that the NHL’s top scorer would be ineligible to play in the Olympics, he would have been branded an idiot. Yet, here we are in 2009, and that is exactly the situation we are in. Anze Kopitar leads the league with 32 points in 21 games, but he won’t be going to Vancouver – his native country, Slovenia, didn’t qualify for 2010.
Kopitar’s rise to the top of the heap in the NHL, half a world away from Slovenia and seemingly a million miles from Jesenice, his place of birth and a city so far removed from world-class hockey as to be laughable, is something of a hockey miracle.
The current IIHF Survey of Players lists Slovenia as having a total of 1,434 hockey players, junior and senior, men and women. To think that one of that number could skate for even one day in the NHL is implausible. To think that that player – the first and only player in Slovenian history even to make it to the NHL – could also lead the league in scoring one quarter of the way through the season is absolutely ridiculous. But it’s happening all the same.
How in the world has Kopitar done it?
First, his father played the game. Of course, he was nowhere as talented as his son, but Anze’s love for the game came naturally. Matjaz Kopitar played for Acroni Jesenice in the Yugoslavian league for many years as well as three World Championships (B and C pool) in the early 1990s, and Anze’s brother, Gaspar, of course, also plays. Born in 1987, Anze started to skate at the age of four. When he was six, he played in a tournament in Villach, across the border in Austria, and although all the other boys were two years older, Anze was the best player.
Like any Canadian kid who learns and loves the game on a backyard rink, Anze also loved the game and played it every spare moment he had on a backyard rink his father constructed. As he got older and his friends started to go out at night and have fun, Anze remained devoted to becoming a better hockey player. He dreamed of playing in the NHL even as a youngster, a dream akin to the Jamaican bobsled team competing for gold or British athlete Eddie “the Eagle” participating in ski jumping at the Olympics.
When he was only 13, Anze played in a Youth Olympics tournament and was scouted by a Swede named Lars Soder. When Kopitar was the scoring leader of the Slovenian league as a 16-year-old, Soder convinced Kopitar to come to Sweden to play, and Anze accepted the offer, knowing full well his ability to develop and learn would be enhanced by the superior competition in Sweden.
Like any teen of exceptional talent, Kopitar struggled after moving away from his family and friends, the only world he knew. He was only 16, living in a foreign country, alone, and the only thing he had in his life was hockey. As a result, he matured not only as a player but as a young man. He worked his way up from the junior ranks to the Elitserien, and from there NHL scouts could see he was a world-class junior with real potential.
Kopitar was drafted 11th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2005, but he returned to Södertälje for one more season before he felt ready to try to make the NHL. That extra season did his confidence a world of good, and when he came to training camp in California in September 2006, he was 19 years old and ready for the big time. Not only did he make the team, but he scored two goals in his first NHL game and finished the year third in rookie scoring with 20 goals and 61 points, behind only Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh) and Paul Stastny (Colorado).
Kopitar had no sophomore jinx in his blood, improving to 32 goals and 77 points in his second year, and his third year was almost the same (27 goals, 66 points). Even before this current season began, it was clear to the Kings that Kopitar was a fast-rising star. They signed him to a massive seven-year, $47.6 million contract, making him one of the top paid players in the league. He didn’t disappoint.
This year, he and his Kings have been off to a flying start. Kopitar is tied for the league lead in goals with 14, and his 31 points in tops among all players. The team has scored 65 goals in total, so Kopitar has had a hand in nearly half his team’s offence to date, a staggering contribution.
Without question, Kopitar’s decision to play in Sweden was a major factor in his development. Not only did it allow him to play with some of the best players in Europe, it also gave him the chance to play internationally for his country at every stage. He made his IIHF debut in 2003 at the World U18 Championship at the age of 15 (Division I), and he played in the 2004 and 2005 events as well (also Division I). In 2004, he made his first of three straight U20 appearances (Division I), and in 2005, he made his debut at the senior World Championship in the top pool, at age 17.
In fact, Kopitar might well be the only player in IIHF history to play at the U18, U20, and senior World Championship tournaments in the same season. He also participated at the Worlds in 2006 and 2008, playing in the 2007 event at Division I in Slovenia and helping his team win a promotion to the IIHF’s 100th anniversary World Championship in Quebec City and Halifax.
There are still many games left in the 2009-2010 season, but one thing Kopitar and every hockey fan knows is that he will have a nice vacation in February. That’s because when Slovenia competed in the final Olympic qualification tournament in February 2009, Kopitar was with the Kings and unable to help his country. Without him, the nation finished last in the Final Olympic Qualification in Germany and was unable to book a date to Vancouver. Of course, the Kings had no obligation to release Kopitar for the tournament, but if he had been able to play and get his team to Vancouver, imagine what an important achievement that would have been for Slovenian hockey.
As it is, the NHL’s top scorer will be at home watching the Olympics like most other fans. But in Kopitar the NHL not only has a sensational young player, it has the most improbable scoring leader in the league’s history.