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Kopitar Hoping to Raise the Bar for Team Slovenia

by Julie Robenhymer / Los Angeles Kings

Most people know Slovenia is in Europe, but most aren't exactly sure where (East of Italy, South of Austria, North of Croatia and West of Hungary) or what runs it's economy (service, industrial plants and construction) or what kind of money it uses (As a member of the European Union, they use the Euro), but if you're a hockey fan, you probably already know they are most well known for the neon green on their jerseys and 6'3, 225lb power forward, Anze Kopitar, who has spent the last eight seasons generating offense and punishing the opposition for the Los Angeles Kings.

The son of a player-turned-coach, Kopitar learned to skate at the age of four on a rink his father, Matjaz, built in their backyard and never looked back. Unaware at the time, but from that moment on, hockey would become his life.

Competitive by nature, he was always working on his skills and before long it wasn't a matter of finding a team for him to play on, but rather finding a team where he could be challenged.

"I always played up, against guys that were one, two, three, sometimes four years older than me," Kopitar explained. "So, finding opportunities for me to play where I was actually challenged was a big challenge as I got older and my skills got better. By the time I turned 15, I was playing in the men's league, but it was starting to get fairly average and I knew I would have to leave."

At 16, he lead the Slovenian Ice Hockey League in points and not wanting to simply be the best hockey player in Slovenia, he knew there was more opportunity for him and he wanted to pursue it. When the U-20 team for Sodertalje in the Swedish Elite League came calling, he jumped at the chance to learn more and grow as a player.

"I knew at that point that hockey at home was not going to be up to the standards I needed for my development. I had to leave. There really wasn't even a choice." Kopitar stated. "I was about to turn 17 when I left for Sweden….It was interesting and I don't think, at that point, I actually knew what I was doing by leaving home at such a young age and thinking I could be independent. It ended up being ok, but there were certainly challenges - like there are with anything - and looking back now, I'd obviously do exactly the same thing, but some days were definitely tougher than others. Fortuantely, my family was very supportive. The flight was only 2.5 hours to Stockholm - I played just outside the city - and they traveled back and forth quite a bit so it was good."

Moving away from your family and challenging yourself in ways you've never been challenged before is hard enough, but to do it in another country where you don't know the language raises the bar a little higher.

"I spoke fairly good English at that point, so I knew I could get by in English and my coach in juniors lived many years in Chicago and he helped me out a lot and then just because I had learned German in school too, I felt like the Swedish language is somewhat a mix between German and English so I was starting to put together words and by the end of the first year there, I was able to understand a lot of Swedish too."

After his first season with Sodertalje, he lead the junior league in scoring and was ranked as the top European skater by Central Scouting. That June, Kopitar became the first Slovenian selected in the NHL Draft when the Kings picked him 11th overall. He'd play one more season in Sweden - this time with the men's team - and play in three IIHF tournaments for his native Slovenia that year- U18 World Championship, World Junior Championship and the Men's World Championship - before testing the NHL waters at the Kings rookie camp in 2006.

"Going to Sweden was a risk, but it was a risk I had to take if I wanted to get better and I was fortunate to be drafted by the Kings in the process and was able to make it right out of camp my first try. So, if I look back, it was pretty easy, but I was also pretty fortunate that everything fell into place and I caught the right timing with the Kings," he said.

Eight NHL seasons, two Stanley Cups, a wife and a baby girl later, the 27-year-old has played internationally for Slovenia 11 times with five medals to show for it - U18 bronze in 2003, U18 silver in 2005, World Junior silver in 2005, World Junior bronze in 2006 and a gold in 2007 at the Men's World Championship, all in Division I, which is just below the top division.

Last year, he helped put Slovenia on the proverbial map when he helped the team advance to the quarterfinals at the 2014 Winter Olympics - their first ever Olympic appearance. They'd lose to Sweden in that quarterfinal game, but it was good enough for a 7th place finish - their highest finish ever in a tournament in the top division.

"There's definitely a few more young kids starting to play hockey, but I also think it's very hard for a small country like ours to have a big explosion of interest or even enough to start developing new programs and everything," Kopitar said regarding the impact their Olympic success has had on growing the game in Slovenia. "There's just not enough people to do that, but in general the response from the fans has been great and you can tell people are definitely more interested than they were, not even in just the Olympics, but the World Championships as well."

Here in Ostrava, Czech Republic at the 2015 IIHF World Championship - Kopitar's fifth - he's cherishing the opportunity to help his national team and play once again for his father, who is also the team's head coach.

"I think everyone would say that they love to play for their home country," he explained. "For us, being on this stage is big for our country and I've always wanted to do it if I've had the time. Lately, I haven't had time because we've had some long runs in the playoffs, but I've done it every chance I've had to do it. It's a lot of fun. I get to get together with a lot of the guys I grew up playing with or against. So that makes it special."

Coming in to this tournament, they know their back is up against the wall every night as the perpetual underdog, but Slovenia doesn't have to win a medal to go home feeling like a winner.

"The win for us is to stay in the division. You know going up against, let's say Russia, you know a win is not realistic, but anything can happen. That's why we play the games. You just stay in the moment, play as hard as you can and by the end of the game, you see what happens," Kopitar said. "We definitely do not want to get relegated. We did not have the best start to the tournament, but there's still lots of hockey left. We just want to stay in the top division and anything else would be a bonus. "

Having ridden the relegation elevator taking them from the top division to Division I and back again for the past five years, they're ready to find a permanent spot in the top division every year. With three games under their belt, their uphill battle is now a little steeper with losses to Belarus, Russia and a heartbreaker to Slovakia last night.

They have four more games left in the preliminary round against USA, Finland, Denmark and Norway. At the World Championship, there is no relegation round. The 8th place team in each group is sent down to Division I and, typically, one win will be enough to avoid that fate.

"We have to be focused on our game. We're not a good enough team where we can outscore teams. We have to limit their chances. First of all, we have to eliminate the turnovers that give them those chances. Then, we just need to play smart hockey and stay patient and go from there," explained Kopitar. "It's a team game. We have good goaltending and it builds out from there. The character in the room is great. the resiliency is really good and I'm sure we're going to have to rely on that too."

As far as his role on this team, Kopitar knows he can be a difference maker and relishes the opportunity to help his team find success.

"Luckily, I am expected to fill a similar role in LA too," he said. "I want to be relied upon and be in that position. It's something I cherish and really thrive on too. I want to be depended on and I want to be the guy that gets it done. That's just my mindset. I like to be in the mix of things and it's no different here. I just try to go out, play hard and do my best."

Slovenia's next game is today against Finland at 11:15am PT.

Julie Robenhymer is reporting live from the #IIHFWorlds in the Czech Republic. Follow her on Twitter.

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