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Loosened Reign

by Jon Rosen / Los Angeles Kings

For a star athlete in a major American city, having a night off during the regular season’s grind often means choosing from an excess of options to decompress and shed loose the cumbersome burdens of a tense 82-game season.

Table service at a chic club? A live music performance? Surely there has to be a party to attend somewhere, right?

If you’re Anze Kopitar, how about tuning into the Ontario Reign’s webcast to watch your younger brother?

“The other night, Friday, they played in Vegas at seven and I had nothing better to do, so I was at home on my computer watching it. It was pretty good.”

Gasper Kopitar, five years Anze’s junior, is now in his second week with the Inland Empire-based club. After a challenging span of several months in which he left his central Sweden team looking for new opportunities, the former L.A. Junior King has joined Los Angeles’ ECHL affiliate refreshed and with a new lease on playing hockey.

His CAA agent, Judd Moldaver, raised the possibility of returning to Southern California continue his career, an option that took some growing in to. Recalling that his older brother enjoyed playing for Mark Hardy – an assistant coach with Ontario – he backtracked eight time zones to build off the momentum of a promising debut to his professional career. Though he was eligible to return to the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers as an overager a season ago, he potted eight goals as part of a 14-point 20-year-old season with Mora IK in Sweden’s HockeyAllsvenskan as he spent time playing alongside his older brother during the NHL lockout.

Despite scoring 36 goals over his final two seasons of junior hockey, the scoring touch never materialized at the start of the 2013-14 season. After 13 games with Mora, followed by two months of waiting for the right opportunity, one materialized in the ECHL, where the Reign have followed up back-to-back Pacific Division titles with a 24-5-1-3 start to the 2013-14 season.

“We have – at least here in Ontario – a couple guys that are really good hockey players and could probably play somewhere in the AHL as well. It depends how the game goes too. Skill wise, you’re up a goal, you play more defensively. I thought in Sweden, no matter what the score was everyone was trying to still make plays and there’s not much dumping the puck in because of the big ice.”

Perhaps the smaller ice surface fits with the skill set of the two-way forward with a quick release who can “muck it out,” according to Ontario head coach Jason Christie. In four games, Gasper has a goal, three points, 14 shots on goal and a plus-5 rating while skating alongside Whittier native Matt White and Ontario veteran Kyle Kraemer.

“You can tell definitely right from the get-go how much he loves the game. I think right there, that kind of sets the bar high,” Christie said. “As far as a 21-year-old kid who’s been off a little here and getting the opportunity to play and how much he does enjoy it when he’s on the ice and how hard he works, it just goes to show. We’ve only had him here three games, but I think the biggest thing with it is his skill level. Where he is and where he’s going to be, there’s just so much upside there.”

Gasper Kopitar is not the property of the Los Angeles Kings, though he’s familiar with Toyota Sports Center and his brother’s teammates.

As the son of Matjaz Kopitar, the coach of the Slovenian Olympic team that will participate at the upcoming Olympics, an interesting dynamic exists that has helped to produce positive intangibles in the way Gasper plays the game.

Though Anze noted that “it’s hard to say” how growing up under Slovenia’s most prominent hockey coach affected his overall attributes, he did recognize some advantages.

“For me it definitely helped, because there is always something to talk about. There’s always room for improvement, where he thinks you can be better,” he said. “There’s discussion going on, whatever you think you can do better and need to do better and in what way you can do it to be better.”

“For the most part, in my experience, I think our dad was pretty good with everything. At not pushing us too hard – he pushed us hard, but not over the edge where you kind of feel miserable.”

He played for his father during Olympic qualifying last February, when Slovenia ran the table against Belarus, Ukraine and host Denmark to claim an Olympic bid.

“He treats everyone the same. I think that’s how it’s supposed to be,” Gasper said. “Once you step into that locker room and once the national anthem starts and when he’s behind the bench I think everyone is equal. He treats everyone the same.”

The Slovenes will be heavy underdogs against the United States, Slovakia and host Russia in Group A of the Preliminary Round when the men’s Olympic tournament begins on February 13.

Though Gasper represented his country during the Division I World Junior Championships, Olympic qualifying and the World Championships, he was not among the player named to the 25-man squad that will compete in Sochi next month.

And while there have been recent quotes made in North America by players critical of the decisions that will keep them at home in February, Gasper took the high road.

“I talked to my dad when I left Sweden. We kind of talked about it and I hadn’t had a team for a while and in order to play at a high level you have to get some games under your belt and play a lot,” he said. “I know guys back in Europe are doing unbelievable right now. Some of the guys are really stepping up on their own teams and stuff. I talked to him last week and he said that he made a decision like that. He has some guys there that are playing good. I understand. I didn’t play a game for a month-and-a-half until last week. It wouldn’t be fair to other guys to take me instead of them.”

Instead, he’ll watch the tournament from Southern California and while on road trips with the Reign – provided that the time difference doesn’t affect his game preparation. He still has good friends on Team Slovenia, all of whom will have his unconditional and unadulterated support and backing.

As for his new teammates, he’s working his way into a locker room that has generated a great deal of regular season success but is looking to advance past the second round of the Kelly Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

That effort will be aided if the team can continue to rely upon another clutch performance or two by the player who wore number 22 in Sweden but sports “26” on the back of his Ontario jersey.

On Sunday, January 5, Reign pressure disrupted an overtime three-on-two rush by the visiting San Francisco Bulls, turning the broken play into an opportunity of their own. Kopitar and White generated a two-on-one in the other direction, which culminated in a pinpoint White pass that fooled the San Francisco goaltender and provided Kopitar ample amount of space to work with.

“The way I remember it, there was a wide open net and the guys told me after that I held on to it too long, I could’ve shot it earlier, but it managed to go in.”

“To be honest with you, I don’t really remember it,” he said. “I kind of blacked out at the end.”

A moment later, Ontario was celebrating a 3-2 win over San Francisco courtesy of a Gasper Kopitar overtime game-winner, and his older brother had the pleasure of watching the game live and with his family, not on the pay-per-view webcast.

“I was very happy for him obviously he’s had a rough go over the span of the past three or four months,” Anze said. “Just the fact that he’s having fun again and enjoying himself on the ice, it’s great for him and the people around him because he seems like he’s happy now.”

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