HRUSICA, Slovenia – The Kopitar family closed the books on a successful season with the Stanley Cup’s first-ever appearance in Slovenia. Anze Kopitar took hockey’s Holy Grail to his hometown of Hrusica near Jesenice on Friday.
It’s been a perfect season for Slovenia’s most famous hockey family. After father Matjaz Kopitar coached the national team to first place in the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A on home ice in Ljubljana, bringing the country back to the Top Division for next year, his son Anze Kopitar led the Los Angeles to the Stanley Cup in June.
The 24-year-old has long been the sole NHL player from the country of two million inhabitants and 943 registered hockey players, only recently being joined by Detroit’s Jan Mursak.
“It’s a little surreal,” said Kopitar about winning the Cup as a Slovene. “Obviously you want to win, but being 24, I’m pretty happy about that. It’s fun and I want to win it again.”
Kopitar combined for 33 goals and 63 assists in 102 games in the regular season and play-offs to lead the Los Angeles Kings to a rather unexpected Stanley Cup triumph.
“We played much better than in the regular season, we scored more goals. That’s the most important difference,” the Slovene said. “We found the rhythm in the best possible way and in the best timing too.”
Anze Kopitar, surrounded by Jesenice junior players, hoists the Stanley Cup once again. This time in his hometown of Jesenice. Photo: Martin Merk
After celebrations wrapped up in LA the Cup made its way through the team with each player getting a day with the Cup. It arrived in Slovenia after having been in Russia in the cities of Chelyabinsk (Vyacheslav Voinov) and Voskresensk (Andrei Loktionov) earlier this week. It was one of the most anticipated moments of the tour as the Cup has never been in Slovenia before.
First he took it to relatives and friends in Bled before going to Hrusica.
It wasn’t promising on Friday afternoon when looking at the sky as the organizers were preparing the stage. It was pouring and thundering in the region around Jesenice, Slovenia’s steel city and the country’s self-proclaimed hockey town.
The stage was set in the neighbouring village of Hrusica, about four or five kilometres away from Jesenice’s arena. It’s here where Kopitar learned to play on a frozen backyard pond.
“My dad played hockey, so it was not hard for me to pick it up. He had a big influence in my career,” Anze Kopitar said. “It’s nice to share the Cup with the close family and close friends. That’s the best thing you can do after sharing it with the teammates.”
As time went by, the clouds disappeared behind the Karavanke mountain range surrounding the Sava Valley for a summery evening right before Kopitar came to the stage in a carriage drawn by horses. Even celebrating the season ended in perfect fashion for Kopitar, who was astonished when seeing thousands of fans. On the stage he had just one word to describe his emotions: “Super!”
Thousands of fans came to celebrate the biggest success of a Slovenian player ever. Photo: Martin Merk
“It’s really fun. As a kid you dream to win it. Once it happened I knew I would bring it here. It’s a special day for me,” Kopitar said. “It’s very nice to see so many fans come and support me. It’s really a good feeling that I can share the Cup and put it on display for them.”
After celebrating with fans and with junior players on the stage, it was time for a marathon with dozens of media representatives before joining the family. And while the forward was busy, his father, his mother and also his 19-year-old brother Gasper, who will follow his brother by transferring to Sweden (Mora) next season, were ready for the mikes and cameras.
“It’s very special. It’s something you can expect once in your lifetime, but in his age I hope it won’t be his last Cup,” said his father Matjaz Kopitar. “We have had really nice days with the Cup and the people were amazing. That’s the reason why we decided to do it here locally and to include our local junior teams.”
Kopitar senior was an international player himself. He represented Yugoslavia and Slovenia in five World Championships in the B-Pool and C-Pool in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“When I once talked with Igor Larionov, he said ‘I’d never change my past.’ And that made me think a lot about my past,” the 46-year-old said. “We lived in that time and my goal was to be part of the ‘professional’ team in our city and I played for our national team. I was really happy. What I went through was nice. But we have to do something to get better here.”
“He was a special kid, everybody knew that,” he said about his son’s childhood. “He was successful in what he tried to do. He played hockey, he played basketball, he played tennis and lately golf. He was really successful. He has really good genes and he’s got good sense for the game.”
Son Anze and father Matjaz Kopitar bring the Stanley Cup to the family backyard where the Los Angeles Kings star learned to play hockey. Photo: Phil Pritchard / HHOF
Anze Kopitar debuted in Slovenia’s top senior league already as a 15-year-old. Two years later he moved to Södertälje, Sweden. When he joined the Los Angeles Kings as a 19-year-old, he was an NHL-ready player who started his career with a 60-point season. Only two rookies, Yevgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane, had more points in 2006/2007 than the Slovene.
“It was pretty important,” Anze Kopitar said about becoming NHL-ready in Europe rather than leaving for North America earlier. “It was a good choice for me. I developed a lot in Sweden and I definitely had a lot of fun there too.”
His father echoes the feelings about his son’s junior development.
“I wanted something like this. Sweden is a big hockey nation, like Finland and other European countries,” Matjaz Kopitar said. “He was happy, he was a really good player in Sweden and that’s why he is where he is right now.”
During his time in Sweden he also played in his first two World Championships. During the 2006 Worlds in Latvia Kopitar made a strong impression, notching nine points in six games against world-class players.
In total he represented Slovenia in four men’s World Championships (three in the Top Division), most recently in 2008, in addition to three U20 and three U18 World Championships Division I.
“It’s always nice when you can play for your own country. I haven’t done it for a while now,” Anze Kopitar said. “I don’t know which my next World Championship is going to be, but if I’m available I’m sure I’m going to play for them.”
If he can lead the Los Angeles Kings to more playoff runs like this year, it won’t happen too soon. But there’s the dream of going to Sochi 2014 with his father as the coach – if Slovenia will make it and the NHL will have an Olympic break.
“It would be really nice. If there’s one thing I haven’t done yet it’s playing at the Olympics. If we can make it happen, it will be nice,” Anze Kopitar said.
Ranked 18th in the world, the Slovenes missed the direct qualification to the 12-team men’s ice hockey tournament of the 2014 Olympics, but they will get a second chance in the Final Olympic Qualification in February 2013.
“Sochi 2014 is our goal for sure,” said coach Matjaz Kopitar. “It’s going to be tough. Denmark and Belarus are really good teams. I know it’s going to be a tough tournament, but I believe in my guys, I believe in my players who will be there and we’re going to fight and do our best. I also think of being a more consistent nation in the Top Division of the World Championship.”
The national coach is already thinking about the next challenges, but before that there’s time to enjoy the moment for the Kopitar family. The Stanley Cup will leave Slovenia, the 24th country it has ever visited, on Saturday to continue its trip in British Columbia.