In just his second season with the Los Angeles Kings, Anze Kopitar has no complaints. After all, the 20-year-old Slovenian forward is the Kings’ leading scorer with 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists) in 47 games, and was just named to the 2008 NHL Western Conference All-Star team. The young gun from Jesenice finds he is living the American dream in sunny California.
“I actually watch reality TV," Kopitar laughs. “That’s one of the fun parts of living here in the States. Like the Real World -- when I first saw it, I just laughed my (butt) off because I wasn’t used to watching that back home. It’s really fun.”
American pop culture can be amusing, but it can’t compensate for the impact of culture shock. From Slovenia to Hollywood is a big jump. But Kopitar is handling the transition well, considering his hometown boasts a population of about 20,000 -- only about 2,000 more than capacity at STAPLES Center. But it’s no surprise he doesn’t flinch at L.A.’s congestion and Hollywood’s circus atmosphere, considering this is not the first time he’s lived in a big city. Kopitar first left Jesenice when he was 17 to play for Sweden’s junior team after outgrowing the hockey ranks of his hometown. He then continued on to the Swedish Elite League for all of the 2005-06 season.
“(Los Angeles) is definitely different,” Kopitar said. “Everything is so much bigger, but I was in Sweden two years before I came here, but obviously it’s a big difference especially with L.A. where so much stuff is going on here with the Lakers, and all the Hollywood stuff going on.”
Last season, Kopitar lived with Kings center Patrick O’Sullivan and remembers how the 22-year-old Toronto native and North Carolina transplant took him under his wing and showed him the ropes of L.A. living.
“Patrick O’Sullivan really helped me a lot,” says Kopitar. “He’s obviously used to that lifestyle of bigger cities, and he made my life easier by helping me by showing me the stuff that I questioned -- just the normal stuff that’s different from Europe. He showed me the good restaurants and where to hang out and where I shouldn’t.
“There are pretty important things that you have to know, especially because you’re a professional athlete and you have to be on top of it, just making sure you’re taking care of yourself.”
O’Sullivan also made sure he was listening to the right music.
“We actually went to a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert last year which was really good,” Kopitar said. “They’re one of my favorite bands, and U2 is really good, too.”
Though Kopitar has opted for new roommates, O’Sullivan can still hope to be invited to dinner sometimes. After all, home-cooked meals have made a comeback in the Kopitar household thanks to mom, Mateja. She and Kopitar’s father, Matjaz, and younger brother Gasper have all moved from Slovenia to support both of their sons. While Anze is playing in the NHL, Gasper, 15, is playing in the Los Angeles system for the Junior Kings and attending high school full-time.
“They moved here which is really helpful,” Kopitar says. “I can have my mom’s cooking again and she takes care of the house and everything, and that’s really helpful for me because I don’t have to focus on the stuff I did before outside of hockey. That takes a little pressure off me.
“And I think we made the right step for him (Gasper) to move here. He’s getting a good education which is great and I’m sure he’ll grow up being a good hockey player, too.”
The one pitfall of the move was the closing of the Kopitar family restaurant, a spot Matjaz built from top to bottom. It’s where Anze would often help wait tables and even learned to carry and balance up to four serving plates at a time.
|Being selected for the Western Conference All-Star team was a dream come true for Kopitar.|
But balancing acts are part of life.
“It was hard to let go but there’s some stuff in life that you have to make decisions at a certain point of time that may be hard, but are for the best,” he says. “We did it and now everybody’s really happy right now.”
In Los Angeles, the only saucers Kopitar needs to balance these days are the ones on his hockey stick. And he’s had quite the start as the first Slovenian to play in the NHL after being drafted 11th overall by the Kings in the 2005 Entry Draft. In his rookie season, Kopitar posted an impressive 20 goals and 41 assists in 72 games. He finished in third in the rookie scoring race behind Evgeni Malkin and Paul Stastny, even though he was injured for a good part of the regular season.
Being selected for Western Conference All-Star team was a dream come true for Kopitar, who was strongly influenced to play hockey by Matjaz, who also played hockey and coached Slovenian champions Jesenice of the Austrian Hockey League. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Anze, who would run home after grade school to skate on the makeshift ice rink his father built for him, is bewildered with how far he’s come in such a short time.
“If someone were to tell me three years ago that I would be on the All-Star team, I’d say give me a break,” says Kopitar. “But it actually happened and I’m really glad. It hasn’t hit me yet, but I’m sure it will in the next couple of weeks and it’s gonna hit me big time when I step into that locker room and see all those All-Stars.”
Hollywood, it seems, is no problem for Kopitar. After all, he’s still wondering how he’s made it to Hockeywood.