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Kopitar Makes the Long Recovery

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

During the season, culinary habits of hockey players are strict. Every calorie is counted. Any item that is served in a paper bag, through a sliding window, is generally off-limits.

Anze Kopitar needed some comfort food, though, on the evening of March 26. Hours earlier, during a game against Colorado, Kopitar took a hit in the corner of the ice. Felt a pop in his right ankle. Fell. Couldn't stand up. X-rays revealed what Kopitar already knew -- a broken leg -- and further tests would also show significant ligament damage.

So while being driven home that night, Kopitar requested a slight detour.

"The first thing I did was go to an In-n-Out and buy myself a burger," Kopitar said.

After he finished the last bite, Kopitar ended his brief self-pity party. The injury, and subsequent surgery, would keep Kopitar sidelined for the final two weeks of the regular season, plus a first-round playoff series loss to San Jose, but Kopitar didn't sit idly.

Within a couple weeks, Kopitar hobbled into the gym to start upper-body exercises. At every stage of his summer recovery, he stayed ahead of schedule. When Kings training camp opened Sept. 17, Kopitar strode onto the ice, looking just as fit as ever.

No limp, no pain, no need for any more Double-Doubles. After the most challenging six months of his career, Kopitar is back and hoping for his best season ever, one in which, as the Kings‚ No. 1 center, he hopes to lead them deep into the playoffs next spring.

"An injury is an injury," Kopitar said. "Once it happens, you have to look forward to your recovery and what you can do to get on the ice as quick as you can, so that's what I did."

Kopitar has led the Kings in scoring for four consecutive seasons and now, as the No. 1 center on a team expected to challenge for one of the top spots in the Western Conference, Kopitar said he is excited, not daunted, by the higher expectations.

Kopitar has topped 30 goals in two of his five NHL seasons and has transformed himself from a below-average defensive center to a player who coach Terry Murray feels comfortable putting on the ice against the opponent's top offensive center.

On the afternoon of March 26, Kopitar was in the late stages of another strong season, facing the Colorado Avalanche and nearing his second consecutive playoff appearance.

Then, disaster. In the second period. Kopitar went into the corner to play a puck and drew contact from Colorado's Ryan O'Byrne. As Kopitar fell, his right leg got awkwardly caught under his body. Kopitar grabbed his leg and yelled in pain on the ice.

A couple things became instantly obvious to Kopitar. His franchise-record streak of 330 consecutive games played, set just a couple weeks earlier, would end. So would his season. The only question was, how bad would the diagnosis be?

"I felt something pop," Kopitar said. "I was just hoping it was going to be a (broken) bone. Obviously if there's no ligament damage it's going to be a little quicker."

No such luck. X-rays taken immediately after the game revealed a broken fibula, but the worse news came when further tests revealed significant ligament damage.

The injury, it turns out, was the exact same one suffered by Justin Williams, Kopitar's regular linemate, in Dec. 2010. If nothing else, Kopitar at least had a sounding board, a measuring stick, a friend who could sympathize and provide support and advice.

"One of the first things I asked him was how long did he take to start walking?‚" Kopitar said. "And walking and jumping and skating again, that stuff."

For any injured pro athlete, the hardest part is rarely the physical pain of the injury but the emotional pain of being separated from teammates. In Kopitar's case, after a five-plus month push to the playoffs, he had to sit and watch his teammates finish the job.

Kopitar did what he could. The Kings drew San Jose in the first round of the playoffs, and Kopitar stayed home to watch Games 1 and 2 on TV. When time came to travel back to San Jose for a must-win Game 5, though, there was Kopitar, carefully negotiating the steps of the team plane to lend moral support.

"Yeah, it was hard to watch the guys play and not be able to do anything," Kopitar said. "I could talk with them but obviously that's different from being on the ice. I had a little bit of a tough time watching the games, but you've got to deal with that. I played 330 consecutive games. Every five years, it happens. Unfortunately, it came at the wrong time, but what can you do? You've got to deal with it and move ahead."

Not only that, but Kopitar turned the injury into something of a positive. Unable to skate or run for the first part of the offseason, Kopitar channeled his workout efforts into his upper body and added noticeable bulk to his shoulder and chest areas.

"I wanted to make sure that if I could do something for upper body, I would," Kopitar said. "I was still on crutches and wobbling around here, but I did it and it helped me out. ... It set the base for the summer and it was good."

Kopitar spent the bulk of his summer in Slovenia, with Kings fans anxiously awaiting any scraps of news from across the ocean. There were pictures of Kopitar on the golf course. There were translated interviews in which Kopitar said he was on track.

So while there was some mild fretting in Southern California, Kopitar remained confident. Williams had returned from his injury in less than four months, and Kopitar would have almost six months of recovery time.

"The only worry I had was whether I could get into the right shape," Kopitar said, "the right conditioning that I'm supposed to be in and that I want to be in. It turned out good. Once I got the walking boot off and I could walk on my own, I just started doing a lot of rehab work, getting my ankle stronger. Next thing you know, I was running already."

Approximately 100 fans filled the stands at the Toyota Sports Center on the first day of training camp, and cheered veteran players as they stepped on the ice. The loudest cheer went to Kopitar, who skated with confidence.

Kopitar's only nod to the injury is a small gel pad that he wore inside he skate during training camp. Kopitar said he felt no pain from the injury, only some incidental swelling, and that wasn't nearly enough to dampen his enthusiasm for the season.

"It's definitely exciting," Kopitar said. "With the moves we did this summer, I think Dean (Lombardi) made this team a lot better. Of course, you don't want to see Simmer [Wayne Simmonds] go, and Schenner [Brayden Schenn] go, but I guess there‚s another way to look at it. There‚s a business side and unfortunately that has to happen.

"But Mike (Richards) is obviously one of the top players in the league. Simon (Gagne) has been in the league for a lot of years, a proven player obviously. Ethan (Moreau) was in the Stanley Cup Finals and brings the experience. Frase [Colin Fraser], he got the Stanley Cup with Chicago. So they've all been, if not there then really close in the Finals, so that's obviously going to help us. Plus we added a little depth to our team too, and it has made us a better team. Our expectations are higher, and we're definitely not going to be satisfied with the first round of the playoffs."

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