By Anze Kopitar | Special to LAKings.com
My dad and my granddad made me a little ice surface right in the backyard and I pushed the chair around on the ice when I was young. As soon as I had the ability to stand up, I got a hockey stick and then I started skating
It was not much longer that I was playing organized hockey. It was only a few months later. I went to a local club and got involved with everything, I got my first set of gear and everything I needed. I then started skating but then it took me a few years before we played the first few games and from then on it was just youth hockey basically always in my hometown and we were traveling around the country just to play. We didn’t even need very cold ice. They put two nets up in the zone and we just played like that.
My dad was a hockey player so I was always watching his tapes and stuff like that when I was a kid. I understood hockey a little bit as I started watching his tapes when I was 5 years old. I was skating at home all the time and I think I started to love it right from the get-go. I didn’t really think about anything else as soon as I came home from kindergarten. I put the skates on and I spent pretty much the whole afternoon out there, on the ice skating and shooting. I don’t think there was ever a point in my childhood where I didn’t want to play anymore or that I wouldn’t play in the future.
Playing at home the hockey environment and atmosphere, and the competition, were OK. It wasn’t great. There weren’t a lot of hockey players but the competition was fine at first. Then I started to play with older kids. When the competition my age wasn’t good enough I started to play with the older kids. That’s how it was basically my whole career. When I was playing back home I was playing with older kids just to have a step for me to take and to make myself better and to have better competition.
Back home I loved the hockey rivalry between Jesenice and the capital city of Ljubljana. That was the big rivalry all the time and it still is. Back then my dad was playing, the buildings were packed and the people in the stands were standing up. People were packed in there like wrapped sausages. It was unbelievable. The atmosphere was unbelievable and the fans would go crazy. Back then I was only looking forward to that. And then later on I started to watch the World Championships and I had the opportunity to watch a few NHL games
As a kid I was put at the center position and I never changed. That is where I stayed. But it was about a year before I left Slovenia that I realized I might need to leave home to pursue better hockey opportunities. I was about 15 or 16 years old when I realized the hockey at home isn’t good enough, that I had to take the next step. And when the opportunity came to go to Sweden I grabbed it. I obviously talked about it with my family and we decided we’re going to try this and it turned out pretty good.
I went by myself and I lived alone in an apartment. I had to take care of myself, do the dishes, the ironing and the laundry. So it was pretty tough at first but then it made me mature a lot quicker then I would have in normal circumstances. I learned a lot those few years I was in Sweden by myself. While I was there I picked up some Swedish. I can understand the language well. By the end of the first year I could pretty much understand everything the guys were saying but I didn’t really have the courage to talk back in Swedish so I would answer in English. Right from the get-go every single person I met in Sweden spoke some English so it was a lot easier for me in the beginning. That made the transition from Slovenia a lot easier.
The competition in Sweden was a lot higher obviously then back home but I thought the guys on the team welcomed me really well. They actually treated me like one of their guys. It was pretty nice for me, it was a lot easier for me to go over there and to have new friends and all the teammates were great comrades, they were helping me, they were teaching me Swedish, they helped me outside the rink too so it made it a lot easier.
After my first year in Sweden is when the NHL began to come into focus for me. That is when all the draft talk started. I actually believed then that I would get drafted. That’s when I first started to believe I could make it, especially when I was hearing my name associated with the first round. I knew that first I had to get drafted and then after that it is a matter of believing in yourself that you can take that next step and make it to the NHL.
I was not at the draft when I got drafted. It also didn’t matter to me that Los Angeles was so far away because at that point everywhere was far away so it didn’t really matter if I was in central America or far west America. Everything was far, everything was overseas so I don’t think how far west you can go make any difference. When I was drafted that excitement then was probably at the highest level yet for me. I remember my dad calling me and congratulating me. We were just talking on the phone about how fun and challenging it’s going to be.
At the time I was drafted I didn’t really know what I had to do to make it to the NHL. I played in the Swedish Elite league one more year basically with men which helped me out a lot. I realized that I had to get stronger, I had to be more of a complete player then I was. So I started working on that. After the season in Sweden I came over to Los Angeles for a rookie camp and I had a pretty good rookie camp. I had a pretty good start and I was fortunate just to stay on the team and put my name on that roster.