Slovenian national team coach Matjaz Kopitar has managed to be there for many of the most memorable moments in the decorated hockey career of his son, Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar. When Anze left their small town as a teenager to play with Sodertalje of the Swedish Elite League, dad was there to see him off. When Anze won the Stanley Cup in 2012 in Los Angeles, dad was there to celebrate.
Dad will be there again this February when Anze adds the title of Olympian to an impressive resume that includes first-round NHL draft pick, NHL All-Star and Stanley Cup champion. This time father and son will share in the historic moment together as Slovenia's hockey team competes for the first time in the Winter Olympics.
"It's definitely going to be huge for our country," Anze Kopitar said. "Even before we've had some Olympics goals and Olympic medals. In a country with 2 million people it's pretty impressive. It's pretty phenomenal how you can accomplish that coming out of such a small country."
Anze couldn't be there when his father's squad clinched an Olympic spot in a qualifying tournament last February in Vojens, Denmark. Ranked third in the four-team tournament, Slovenia defeated Belarus and host Denmark to secure a spot in Sochi. The Kings were in the middle of a four-game road trip when Slovenia beat Denmark 2-1 to clinch the Olympic spot, but the moment he heard the news Anze wasted little time contacting his father, who called the unlikely win "a miracle."
"He called me. I was in the locker room. He was excited too of course," Matjaz Kopitar told NHL.com. "It's just the first time. Next time is going to be the second. The first time is always special."
A lifelong veteran of Slovenian hockey, the elder Kopitar took over the national team in December 2010, more than a year after another failed bid to qualify for the Winter Games. At the time of his hiring expectations were modest for his squad, which at different times has included Anze Kopitar and his younger brother, Gasper. But years before that magical night in Denmark, Matjaz Kopitar believed this moment one day would come for his family and his country.
"When I took over in 2010 one of my biggest goals was to make the Olympics. I didn't hide this from anybody. I told the public, 'We want to do this, that is our goal,'" Matjaz Kopitar said. "The first feelings, you can't even remember what happened at that time. I just saw a group of really happy guys. When we landed in Ljubljana Airport a lot of fans were there in the middle of the night. It was a huge, huge thing."
Slovenia's spot in the Olympic tournament is secure, but the Slovenians will face long odds when they arrive in Sochi. They are ranked 12th in the 12-team field and Anze Kopitar will be the only NHL player on the roster. After Kopitar, the only name player on the Slovenian roster is Jan Mursak, who played 46 games in three seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and now plays with Khabarovsk Amur of the Kontinental Hockey League. Gasper Kopitar currently plays with Mora IK in Sweden and is not expected to make the Olympic roster.
As for Anze Kopitar, he hasn't had any concrete discussions with his father just yet about the upcoming games.
"We've talked a little bit. I guess it's not too far away," Anze said. "No specifics though -- just formalities."
Slovenia is expected to be overmatched against national teams made entirely of world-class talent. But it does have one elite NHL player, although he hasn't played internationally since leading the tournament in scoring when his country hosted and won the B Division of the 2007 IIHF World Championship.
"We go through a lot of stuff already. We were together when they won the Cup in L.A. That was an outstanding moment. I think this is going to be special too. I can't wait for it to begin," Matjaz Kopitar said. "We're going to prepare ourselves 100 percent. So we're going to come out and do our best and of course our goal is to surprise somebody out there. We're not going on a vacation over there, that's for sure."
Author: Tal Pinchevsky | NHL.com Staff Writer