Wherever Anze Kopitar's hockey travels have taken him, he has symbolically carried the torch for hockey in his native Slovenia.
Now the Los Angeles Kings' standout center is the first Slovenian to hoist the Stanley Cup and the fourth athlete from his homeland to win a championship in one of the major North American team sports. The Jesenice native joins NBA basketball players Raso Nesterovic, Beno Udrih and Sasha Vujacic among the ranks of Slovenian champions.
Along with Detroit Red Wings forward Jan Mursak, Kopitar is one of two Slovenians to play in the NHL this season. The 24-year-old Kopitar by far is the most prominent player to come out of the small Slovenian hockey community. While hockey is popular in Slovenia, it is a small country with a correspondingly small pool of serious hockey players. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, the country of two million citizens has only 943 registered players.
Relative to the major international hockey countries, Slovenia has typically offered fewer resources for promising young players to receive high-level coaching. Likewise, the opportunity to play against elite level competition is limited. As is usually the case for players hailing from secondary hockey nations, top young Slovenian players often must go abroad to further their training and catch the eye of NHL scouts.
Without the assistance and emotional support of his entire family, it would never have been possible for Kopitar to successfully realize his dream of playing in the NHL. This year, the player brought along members of his family to attend the Stanley Cup Final, and he got the opportunity to celebrate his championship with them shortly after the Kings' Game 6 victory.
"I was fortunate enough to have my family here," Kopitar said. "[Winning the Stanley Cup] in front of them and being able to share it with them, it's unbelievable."
This summer, the small industrial mountain town of Jesenice, Slovenia will welcome two honored guests in a special celebration: a homecoming Kopitar and the Stanley Cup trophy.
Born in Jesenice on Aug. 24, 1987, hockey was in Kopitar's blood from a young age. His father, Matjaz, was a star forward in the former Yugoslavian league as well as Austria. The elder Kopitar represented Yugoslavia and an independent Slovenia in international hockey before his retirement as an active player in 2003. Thereafter, Matjaz Kopitar turned to full-time coaching, eventually becoming the head coach of HK Acroni Jesenice and the Slovenian national team.
Anze and younger brother Gasper received their initial hockey coaching from their father. Their parents made a small ice rink in the back of their family's house, where they learned the basics of the sport before enrolling in the HK Jesenice youth hockey program.
"I was fortunate enough to have my family here. [Winning the Stanley Cup] in front of them and being able to share it with them, it's unbelievable."
-- Kings' forward Anze Kopitar
Meanwhile, their grandmother, an English teacher at the local school, emphasized the importance of being able to speak fluent English if they were serious about someday playing sports in North America. Inheriting their grandmother's love of and aptitude for learning languages, the Kopitar boys mastered English even before coming to North America. Today, Anze speaks virtually unaccented English and can also communicate in Swedish and German in addition to his native Slovene and Serbian.
Anze graduated to the senior level of Slovenian hockey at the age of 15. He remained in his native country for one additional year, simultaneously playing for the HK Kranjska Gora senior team and the Jesenice Under-20 squad. In the summer of 2004, the 16-year-old accepted an offer to join Swedish team, Sodertalje SK. His rapid climb through the SSK junior system to the Elitserien level prompted the Kings to draft Kopitar with the 11th pick in the first round of the 2005 NHL Draft. Ultimately, he became the first Slovenian citizen to play in the NHL.
Gasper also left Slovenia to pursue his hockey dreams. The forward, who will turn 20 in August, spent several years playing hockey and attending school in North America. He played midget hockey for the Los Angeles Jr. Kings before playing parts of the next three seasons with the WHL's Portland Winter Hawks and the USHL's Des Moines Buccaneers. He recently signed a contract for the 2012-13 season with Swedish minor league team, Mora IK.
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Likewise, countryman Mursak left Slovenia as a teenager to pursue higher-level hockey training. He spent one year in the Czech Republic for the famed Ceske Budejovice junior program and, upon being selected by the Red Wings in 2006, relocated to North America to play for the OHL's Saginaw Spirit before moving up to the professional ranks.
The careers of Kopitar and Mursak have served as an inspiration to young players and fans alike in their homeland. According to a recent article in the Slovenia Times, the Kings are the adopted favorite NHL team of much of the populace and some of the team's games are shown live on a Slovenian sports television channel. Despite the fact that the Stanley Cup Final games started at 2 a.m. Slovenian time, the games drew significant viewership thanks largely to Kopitar's star power.
For young Slovenian players and the Slovenian hockey community as a whole, Kopitar represents something more than just your typical local sports hero: He represents their collective hopes and dreams. Kopitar has shown that it is possible for a talented and hard-working player to rise from the country's small hockey program, and not only to make it to the NHL but star at the highest level and become a key contributor to a team that wins the sport's ultimate prize.
Asked about his iconic stature in Slovenia after the Kings' Cup victory, Kopitar offered a brief but heartfelt response.
"I'm humbled," he said.
The Kopitar family has helped give a huge emotional lift to Slovenian hockey at a time when the country's hockey program is in need of good news. The HK Acroni Jesenice club, which had been playing in the Austrian-based EBEL -- one of Europe's most up-and-coming circuits with well-funded clubs at the top of the heap -- is in bankruptcy. The club has been booted from the league for at least one season.
On a much brighter note, the city of Ljubljana, Slovenia, played host to Group A of the recent 2012 Division I World Championship and did not disappoint the partisan local crowds. Coached by Matjaz Kopitar, the Slovenian team went undefeated in the tournament to earn a promotion to the 2013 Worlds in Stockholm and Helsinki. The underdog Slovenians will play in a group that also features Sweden, Canada, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Belarus. It would be a remarkable accomplishment if the team can avoid relegation.