Kopitar getting overdue recognition

LOS ANGELES -- Matjaz Kopitar remembers the scene vividly, standing at the airport with his 16-year-old son, Anze Kopitar, about to leave the family's home in tiny Slovenia to join a club in Södertälje, Sweden.

As a hockey coach, Matjaz knew this was the right move if his son was going to develop his considerable skills.

As a parent, well, that was something entirely different.

"But on same hand, as a parent, for me and for my wife and his younger brother, it was a shock at that time," Matjaz Kopitar told ESPN.com.

"We were standing there and, just, gone," he recalled of the airport farewell. "I started thinking, 'What are you doing? Are you crazy?'

"It was almost as if you lost your kid [at a] young age. But that was the price we paid for his success."

If there is a sense of an awakening when it comes to the Kings center and the current playoff scoring leader (24 points through 22 games), it is more likely that the public and some of the media are the ones being roused from a great slumber when it comes to Kopitar.

Because if you talk to those around Kopitar, almost none of this is new. Except, perhaps, the attention.

Per Nygards, Kopitar's former coach with Södertälje, remembers Kopitar's first season in Sweden.

At 16,Kopitar was living on his own while playing for the club's junior squad. In an exhibition game, Kopitar collected six points, and a veteran referee skated by the Södertälje bench, turned to Nygards and asked: "Where in the hell did you find that No. 28?"

Where indeed.

Kopitar has been playing a man's hockey game at both ends of the ice from the very beginning, according to the coach who recruited him out of Slovenia.

"He just had everything. He scores on tip-ins, backhands, one-timers, he sets up one-timers," Nygards told ESPN.com.

"He blocks shots. He does everything. He was that way early."

Journey to Los Angeles

In the moments before Game 1 of these Stanley Cup finals, Wayne Gretzky told the CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" he thinks Kopitar is the third-best player in the world, behind Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.

Kopitar seemed taken aback by the comments.

"I'll take any compliment from that guy," Kopitar said Thursday. "Even if he said I was the fifth in the rankings, I would have taken it.

"It's obviously very nice to hear things about that. I've heard it for the first time right now. I didn't really pay attention to anything after [Game 1]."

How Kopitar came to the Kings remains a defining moment for an organization that, at the time, was still hoping to hit on the right combination that would take it from a peripheral team to a contender. Al Murray and Grant Sonier were the Kings' scouts who invested the most time in scouting Kopitar, who at the time was playing for the junior club in Sweden and the Slovenian national team.

By the time the world championships rolled around that year, other NHL teams had caught on to the impressive 17-year-old, but perhaps because he'd been playing so much, Kopitar looked a little weary when the hockey world converged on the tournament during the NHL's season-long lockout.

"I think that might have fooled some people," Sonier, now the general manager of the Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, told ESPN.com recently.

At the draft, the Kings had Kopitar at No. 3 on their list. They were picking 11th.

"When Vancouver took Luc Bourdon with the 10th pick, I kicked Al Murray so hard under the table he almost fell out of his chair," Sonier said. "We were united on this. We all felt he was going to be a star player."


Sure. But maybe not as big a risk as one might imagine, given that the Kings were using a pick on a kid from a country the size of a postage stamp.

Those who knew Kopitar felt in their heart of hearts that this was a special player, regardless of his humble beginnings skating on his father's homemade ice rink behind their home in Slovenia.

The Kings GM at the time was Dave Taylor, and of the hundreds of kids he's interviewed in his career -- he is currently the vice-president of hockey operations for the St. Louis Blues -- the Kopitar interview still stands out.

"He might have been the most impressive interview that I've had the opportunity to sit in on," Taylor said in a recent interview.

"He just walked in, he just had so much poise and composure. It was amazing how big and strong he was for a 17-year-old. We thought, 'Here's a player with tremendous upside.'"

The former Kings great recalled asking Kopitar how long he thought he needed before he'd be ready to play in the NHL. With certainty, Kopitar said he felt he needed one more year playing in Sweden at the elite league level and he'd be ready to take on the NHL.

He was right. The next fall he made the Kings out of training camp.

"He was absolutely dominant in the rookie camp," Taylor recalled. "He was an impact player right away.

"We thought this could be a potential home run for the L.A. Kings."

Swinging for the fences is kind of a Kopitar thing, even if it's taken time for his reputation to catch up to his actual play. In 2006-07, his rookie season, he scored 20 goals, and his 61 points put him third among all first-year players. But other rookies, such as Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin, Paul Stastny and Dustin Penner, captured the hockey public's eye. It wasn't until this season that Kopitar's strong two-way play earned him a nomination for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the game's best two-way player; a recognition that Kopitar's teammates feel is long overdue.

"You try and describe guys [as] 'shut-down D' or 'goal scorer' or 'grinder.' I've said this before about Kopy, he's just a hockey player," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "If the best play's a pass, it's a pass, if the best play's a shot, it's a shot. He's just a complete hockey player. He doesn't get enough credit in my opinion partly probably because of the market we're in, his background. If he was a Canadian and played in New York, [there would] probably be more people talking about him."

For most of this spring, Brown, Kopitar and trade-deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik have formed one of the most dangerous offensive lines in the league.

"He's always had the scoring ability, both goal-scoring and obviously playmaking ability," Brown said. "I think there's a reason he doesn't score 90 to 100 points like he's probably capable of doing, and part of it is the way we play. If there's one thing he doesn't do, it's cheat on the offensive side of the puck, and that's why he's up for the Selke. I think you put him on another team or in a different system, he probably has a lot more points, but again that's what makes us successful is we have our best players buy into our system. As a result, he might not score as many but we're sitting here in June playing."

'The best I can be'

If there is one word that often comes up when talking about Kopitar, it's "driven."

When Kopitar arrived in Sweden, Nygards was a bit worried about the young player living on his own. But he worried only until he got to know Kopitar and his family.

"He was very mature. And very calm, focused. Just a nice kid," Nygards said. "Very cool, even-tempered, always in control. Had a great drive to succeed and trying to improve all the time. Easygoing but at the same time very determined. He loved the game."

The outside view is that somehow Kopitar's dreams were different because he grew up in a small country with a small hockey community, in the mining and industrial town of Jesenice, Slovenia, near the Austrian border. But the reality is his dreams were no different than those of Toews or Crosby or any other elite athlete.

Lots of teenage boys leave home to pursue those dreams in North America, and Kopitar doesn't really consider himself any different just because his journey went from Slovenia to Sweden to Los Angeles.

"Yeah, it was different. I really wasn't scared," he insisted. "I just had one thing in mind. I think my family back home were more concerned of how I'm going to pan out, but not on the ice, but it's how the life was going to be and being so far away.

"But I always just had one goal in mind [which] was really to try to take the next step in hockey, that's what drove me. I didn't really care how my apartment looked like in Sweden. For me it was if I had everything at the rink, if my skates were feeling good, and that's just how I think everybody that's trying to take the next step looks at it.

"I'm a very competitive guy. By nature. I don't like losing in hockey, I don't like losing in any other sports. I don't like losing playing cards. You name it. I just want to be the best I can be. I think that's pretty much all you need to be driven like that. More often than not, if you're driven like that, you're going to succeed."

If there is one person who embodies the ideals, the beliefs and the personality of this Kings team now three wins away from a second Stanley Cup in three years, it's Kopitar. Low-key, determined, never particularly flashy but, it seems, always in the right place to make the right play.

"I guess the biggest compliment I could give him is that I know that the eight defensemen we're carrying on the team right now, they're hoping if they're going out on the ice they're going out with Kopy because he's that responsible," said veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell. "On down low, you know where he's going to be, he's going to be an easy outlet for you. He's just going to always make the right play and then really he just makes everyone around him that much better.

"He's a quiet guy, he's a really quiet guy. He's just humble and just goes about his business. He has obviously an inner belief that he wants to be one of the best players in the game and he's developed into that, but he's not going to be flaunting that and being front and center with those things."

Although he is nominated for the Selke Trophy, Kopitar's not particularly interested in talking about anything that smacks of self-promotion.

"Well, my first goal was to get drafted, then try to make the team to play in the NHL on a consistent basis, to be consistent all the time," Kopitar explained. "Then the goals are always higher and you try to make the playoffs for the first time. You try to win the Cup for the first time, then you try to build on those things.

"To be up for an award right now, it's not the time to think about it, but when it's all said and done and I'm going to look back at it, whether it's going to happen or not, it's a nice achievement. I want to keep building on that."

After Kopitar's rookie year, his father (also the coach of the Slovenian team that participated in its first Olympics in Sochi) came to visit. When he got home, Matjaz Kopitar and his wife sold the family restaurant and moved to California to be with their oldest son.

At the time, Matjaz was often one of the only people sitting in the stands at the Kings' practices.

Today, he feels as much pride in how this team has matured into a winner as he feels with the successes of his son.

It somehow puts into perspective that memory of watching his son jet off into an uncertain future in a foreign country.

"He's still the same," Matjaz said. "He wants to be the best and he wants to be on the top.

"I don't know, it's privilege with all this success, he and all of us were rewarded in this time."