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Hockey Morning in Slovenia

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
For the second time in less than a week, it will be Hockey Morning in Slovenia.

Thanks to a nine-hour time difference, it will be 4:30 a.m. in Slovenia when Anze Kopitar’s Kings and Jan Mursak’s Detroit Red Wings take the ice to play tonight at STAPLES Center. Half a world away, in the small European country of Slovenia, bleary eyes will be watching a pair of one-in-a-million players.

In a country with a population of just over two million, a country that has been free and independent for more than two decades, Kopitar and Mursak are the first two Slovenian-born players to make the NHL. They were born five months apart, grew up as friends and competitors and are now making history together.

The first-ever head-to-head meeting between two Slovenians took place last Friday in Detroit, where Mursak’s Red Wings rallied and scored two goals late in the third period to beat Kopitar’s Kings 4-3.

Kopitar had one assist, and Mursak played only a handful of minutes in a fourth-line role, but via email, Slovenians reported staying up through the night, huddled around computers to watch two of their sporting heroes.

``Slovenia is so small, and we don’t have many players in the NHL, so they’ve very proud of us,’’ Mursak said.

Kopitar has been a top-six forward in the NHL since 2006, while Mursak made the Red Wings’ roster for the first time last season. It’s tough to overstate how long the NHL odds were for both players.

Nestled near the Alps, Slovenia has a total area of just over 7,800 square miles, roughly the same size as Massachusetts or New Jersey. Bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia isn’t exactly situation in a hockey-rich environment, as soccer, tennis and even basketball and handball rank higher.

Growing up playing hockey in Slovenia -- Mursak in the eastern part, Kopitar in the western part, approximately two hours away -- the two youngsters had no template. Perhaps a half-dozen Slovenian-born players had been drafted by NHL teams, but none had made it. A dozen or so Canadians of Slovenian heritage had cracked the league, but never anyone from the region that used to be a part of Yugoslavia.

Kopitar was born in Aug. 1987, and Mursak was born five months later, and their paths crossed frequently, as they played against each other in junior games and with each other in international competitions.

``Well, Slovenia is really small, so every hockey player knows the other guys,’’ Kopitar said. ``We’ve been friends for quite a long time, since the under-18 juniors.’’

As their draft-eligible years approached, Kopitar and Mursak managed to draw attention, even though Slovenia has never participated in the Winter Olympics in men’s ice hockey and has never finished higher than 13th place in the annual World Championships tournament.

Kopitar had the higher profile of the two, and the Kings selected him with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2005 draft. The Kings believed, at the time, that Kopitar would have gone higher if not for the uncertainty surrounding a player who didn’t grow up in a hockey-rich background.

The next year, the Red Wings -- long known for the their drafting and development of European players -- took Mursak in the sixth round, and the two Slovenians started their paths to the NHL. Kopitar’s was quicker. After one season in a Swedish pro league, Kopitar cracked the Kings’ lineup and has been a regular since.

It’s been a slower, but steady, rise for Mursak. In 2006, when Kopitar joined the NHL, Mursak also came to North American to play junior hockey in the OHL. Two years later, at age 20, he turned pro and joined the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich. After two full seasons there, Mursak got the call, on Dec. 26, 2010, that he would join the Red Wings, and he played 19 games for them last season.

``He’s a great player, and I played against him quite a bit growing up,’’ Kopitar said of Mursak. ``I know him quite well. We had a few national-team duties, in our younger years, when we played together.’’

The potential for a first Slovenian vs. Slovenian matchup got derailed in the latter part of last season and then the two countrymen, already with a great shared history, had an unfortunate connection.

Late last season, Kopitar suffered a devastating injury when he broke his ankle and tore ligaments. After a summer of recovery, Kopitar returned for training camp. Then, in a September preseason game, Mursak suffered almost exactly the same ankle injury and missed four months.

``It was kind of the same,’’ Mursak said. ``I think his was a little worse than mine. He had some ligaments injured too. You never know when injuries are going to happen, but it was kind of weird that we both got the same injury in such a short period of time.’’

Now, though, both are healthy, and while Kopitar is trying to push his team toward the playoffs, Mursak is trying to become a regular contributor on one of the NHL’s top teams. Both are playing on high-profile teams, which raises the question: are they helping to raise the profile of the sport back home?

A handful of Slovenians are playing professional in Austria and Sweden. Kopitar’s father, Matjaz, is the coach of Slovenia’s national team and Kopitar’s younger brother, Gasper, is playing junior hockey in Iowa. Mursak noted, before last week’s game in Detroit, that newspapers and television stations in Slovenia had been promoting the game, and Kopitar said hockey seems to be growing in his home country.

``Yeah, I think so,’’ Kopitar said. ``I know quite a bit of people are waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning to watch our games. I guess it’s become a little bigger, and that’s nice to see, obviously.

``(Mursak) is a good friend of mine, but as soon as we step on the ice, he’s on the opposite side. I’ll play hard and he’s going to play hard, and we’ll see what happens.’’

This time, it’s on Kopitar’s turf. Last week, Mursak had some home cooking before the Kings arrived. A few days earlier, a group of Slovenians, playing an amateur hockey tournament in nearby Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, came to Joe Louis Arena and provided raucous, flag-waving support of Mursak.

Mursak had hoped to see his fan club again, when Kopitar came to town.

``It would be fun if they would come,’’ Mursak said. ``I want to see how they would cheer for.’’
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