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Q&A WITH THE LAK: KOPITAR

by Royal Reign / Los Angeles Kings
With an elite skill set loaded onto a 6-4, 220-pound frame, Anze Kopitar has all the tools to become a dominant center in the NHL. After a 20-goal, 61-point rookie season, it’s safe to say Kopitar is well on his way to becoming just that. Kopitar is off to the kind of start that suggests his rookie campaign was no fluke. And, Kopitar — who was the Kings’ first selection (11th overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft — is still only 20 years old, which means he only figures to get better. After a recent practice, Kopitar sat down with Royal Reign to talk about his background in Slovenia, his future hopes for the Kings, and about the amazing shootout move he pulled off in an October game against Minnesota.

Q: Let’s start with the remarkable move you made in a shootout against Minnesota in October; was that something you have worked on a lot?

A: Actually, I did it in the skate before the game that morning. I figured it was the right time to do it because we were up, 2-1, (in the shootout). If I scored, we would win the game. If I don’t score, nothing happens, right? So that’s probably the right time to try it. I felt really comfortable doing it, too. If we were down, 2-1, I don’t think I’m doing that move. I just thought it was the right time to try it.

Q: Did you come up with the move that morning, or had you worked on it in the past?

A: I had tried before, but once I did it in the morning, I was really thinking about using it. I said to one of the guys, ‘If we go to a shootout, I’m pulling that move.’ It was kind of funny, actually.

Q: Is there a risk when you make that move that the referee might misinterpret what you are doing and think that you have lost control of the puck?

A: There are a couple of guys that did it already last year, so I don’t think that would be the case with the referee. All the high skill guys are doing that. Many guys tried it, but maybe it didn’t work; I don’t think the referee would misjudge it and call it a mishandle.

Q: You played a couple of exhibition games in Austria — which is very close to your homeland of Slovenia — during the exhibition season. Were there a lot of people in the house that came to see you play?

A: There was, actually. There were a lot of fans, and a lot of my buddies, that came to watch. I knew they were coming, so it was a little more exciting to play there. Most of them saw me playing in a Kings jersey for the first time, and that was really exciting for me.

Q: In one of the games, the Kings fell behind, 3-0, but came back to win, 7-6. You had a hat trick and the crowd was very engaged and passionate. What was that game like for you?

A: The atmosphere in the building was great. The drums were pounding, and the European atmosphere, I think, is a little different than the atmosphere here in North America. We got down, 3-0, but we were still relaxed. We knew we were going to win that game if we stuck to it and continued to play the way we should. We did that, and we came out on top.

Q: Does playing in front of friends, and a very vocal crowd, remind you of why you play hockey?

A: Yeah, of course. It’s always fun to play hockey, even if you win by a score of 7-6, like we did. There were a lot of goals, and the game was going back and forth. Because we were playing on the big (European) rink, I had more time and space to operate. But, still, the game is the game, and you’ve got to enjoy it every single second that you’re playing. That’s what I try to do.

Q: Is it true that your family owned a restaurant when you were growing up in Slovenia?

A: Yes, that’s right. But we don’t have it anymore because everybody in my family moved here. It doesn’t work if you can’t be there to run it every day, so we sold it.

Q: Did you spend a lot of time working in the restaurant when you were growing up?

A: Not really. I would help a little bit, now and then. If a big group came in, I’d help out with it, or maybe I’d bring a case of beer for the bar, or something like that. So, I helped as much as I could, but I didn’t really work there.

Q: Your father, Matjaz, is also a hockey coach, right?

A: Yeah, he’s our national team coach in Slovenia. He was the coach last year in my hometown. I think this year, he is going to work with the Junior Kings. He is in contact with Luc (Robitaille), so hopefully, they can work something out.

Q: How important to your development was it to have a hockey coach living in the same house as you?

A: It was great. My dad was actually my first coach. I would come home, and he would tell me what to do, and what not to do. I still look at him as a coach, and he always has some really good advice for me. Even though I am playing in the NHL, he still knows me the best. He still knows what is the best for me and probably will for a couple more years.

Q: When we look at the Kings, we see a core group of very good young players; do you feel like experience is the only thing this group needs in order to help the Kings develop into an elite team?

A: That’s right. Our goal last year was to make the playoffs, and we came up short. This year, it’s the same thing. We’ve got to work hard, and who knows? With youngsters like Jack (Johnson) on defense, Patrick (O’Sullivan), Dustin (Brown), Mike (Cammalleri), Alex (Frolov), and myself, we have a good, young group. The great thing about this group is that it’s not too young, but it’s not old, either. These guys have been in the league for three or four years already, and that helps us with experience. I feel more comfortable now that I am in my second year in the league right now. You get familiar with the league and all the players, with the travel, and stuff like that, so that really helps.

Q: You had a look at Jonathan Bernier in goal for a few games before he went back to juniors — did you get the sense that he could be this team’s goalie of the future?

A: Yes. Jonathan had a great camp, and played a couple of really good games for us. He’s going to have a bright future in the NHL.

Q: You mentioned that you missed out on your goal of making the playoffs last season — after that happened, did you watch the Stanley Cup playoffs, or would that have been too painful?

A: I was back in Slovenia, but every game that was on TV, I watched. It was really intense. I was actually back here for the first two Stanley Cup games in Anaheim. That’s something you definitely want to be a part of someday. Watching those games made me determined to play hockey in late May, and make it to the Stanley Cup finals.

Q: You’ve been compared to Mark Messier; do you see why people would make that comparison?

A: It’s obviously very nice to get compared to a guy like that. Those are big, big shoes to fill, and while there is not going to be another Wayne Gretzky or another Mario Lemieux, there are some really, good, good players in the league right now. Guys like Sidney (Crosby), and Alexander (Ovechkin), and Paul (Stastny) in Colorado. You know, the young generation is coming up right now, and there are some very good players. It’s hard for me to talk about myself. Instead, I’ll keep going out and playing my best, and we’ll see what happens.

Q: When you were growing up in Slovenia, what players would you watch and try to pattern your game after?

A: It was my dad, but he was a winger, and I was a centerman. Then, when I started to know what was going on with hockey and started to follow the NHL, Gretzky was the player everyone would look at. A little later, it was (Sergei) Fedorov who was a great player that I really looked up to.

Originally written by Doug Ward for Royal Reign.

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