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REUNITED

by Staff Writer / Los Angeles Kings
Anze Kopitar and Scott Thornton seem to be on the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to ... well...everything. Aside from both being first-round draft picks, there would seem to be little else that these two Kings have in common.


Thornton is 35-years old and a 15-year veteran of the NHL, with 836 regular season and 79 post-season games on his resume. Kopitar is just 18 years of age and has yet to appear in an NHL game.

Kopitar is from Slovenia, a country that has never produced an NHL player. Thornton, meanwhile, is from Canada, a country literally synonymous with hockey.

Thornton recently signed with the Kings as a free agent, the sixth NHL team he has been a part of since 1987. Kopitar, born in 1987, has played for two teams – both in Sweden.

And it was in Sweden during the 2004-05 work stoppage that their paths crossed for the first time.

Turning to Europe after the 2004-05 season was officially cancelled, Thornton played in 12 regular season games for Sodertalje SK of the Swedish Elite League (SEL). Joining the club in late January, he recorded seven points (2-5=7) and 10 penalty minutes during the regular season. He then played in 10 post-season games where he had three assists and 27 penalty minutes.

While in Sweden, Thornton, a member of the San Jose Sharks at the time of the NHL work stoppage, found himself on a line with fellow NHLer Kyle Calder of Chicago and with a then-17-year-old young center named Anze Kopitar.

Thornton, a left wing, recalled the first time he met/played with Kopitar.

"He is very talented," Thornton said. "I was amazed at how talented the kid is. He's big, strong and very gifted with the puck. He's smooth and has great vision on the ice. I think he was head and shoulders above a lot of the other teammates and, even at a young age, you could see that he was going to be something special."

Kopitar, the Kings' lone first-round choice in 2005, was instantly impressed with Thornton as well, both on and off the ice.

"Scott is a power forward and when we played on the same line, he would be the one that got us going by hitting. He's also very good with the puck and can score," Kopitar said.

"(Scott's) a real nice guy. He was a good example for young kids, showing them how to workout and how to practice."

For NHL players, the 2004-05 hockey season was unique. With no National Hockey League action, players either stayed at home, found North American hockey opportunities or traveled abroad with skates in hand.

Thornton and his cousin, Joe, both went to Sweden, with Joe playing 54 games with Davos (SEL). This past season Scott and Joe played in San Jose together. However, in Sweden Scott played with someone half his own age in Kopitar.

"I thought it was pretty funny actually to come in every day and sit beside him and pick his brain as to what he's thinking at that age," Thornton said. "It was fun for me. When I was 17, I was at a completely different level playing Junior hockey and just being a kid and still going to school and everything. Anze is a kid who left his country to go and pursue his dream.

"I just thought he was a pretty mature kid at that age with the choices he had to make. It's pretty incredible. It's a different culture over in Europe for guys to leave their countries at that age and it was something I didn't have to face."

For Kopitar, the decision to play in Sweden the last couple of years has been, by and large, to help grow his game. But he has also represented his homeland in various international tournaments, including the 2005 World Junior Under-18 Championships where he had 11 points in five games.

Rob Laird, the Kings' director of pro scouting, has seen Kopitar in action quite a bit. He too has been impressed.

"I have observed Kopitar at the World Championships the last two years where he has represented his home nation of Slovenia," said Laird, who also witnessed his play at the 2005 "Pacific Division Shootout" rookie tournament in San Jose and at the last two Kings development camps.

"At these events he has been his team's most dominant player, centering the top line and playing in all situations. Some of the best hockey players in the world compete in this event and Anze has more then held his own against elite competition."

Calder, the Blackhawk winger who played on the line overseas with Kopitar and Thornton in 2004-05, also saw Kopitar at this year's World Championship tournament.

"He stood out like a sore thumb because he was so dominant," said the veteran of six NHL seasons.

Calder likes both Kopitar's overall skills package and his size. At 5-11 and 180 pounds, he said he felt dwarfed on that line by the larger Kopitar and Thornton.

"Anze is a big kid," Calder said. "He has unbelievable skill and he is tough to move in front of the net. The longer he plays here the stronger he will get. He can shoot the puck, finish and he is a great playmaker.

"It was a pretty good line we had over there. It was a lot of fun. I was the little guy on the line for sure. We had a lot of success though."

In 2004-05, Kopitar played five games for Sodertalje SK and 10 more in the playoffs where, by age standards, he was a boy among men. He also played in 30 games with Sodertalje of the Swedish Junior League that season, recording 49 points – including 28 goals – and 26 penalty minutes.

But when he was with the Junior League team, Kopitar would often practice with the parent club, according to Thornton.

This past season, Kopitar played a full season with Sodertalje SK and had 20 points in 47 contests.

Kings captain/defenseman Mattias Norstrom has spent time in the Swedish Elite League. A native of Stockholm, the veteran defenseman certainly knows a lot about the super talent that plays there.

"I would say that the Swedish League is the best hockey league outside of North America," Norstrom said. "In Sweden the game is a tactical game where everybody is expected to play defense first. The game is a skating game, not overly physical."

Skating is one of the areas that Kopitar looks to improve upon as he continues his goal of playing in the NHL with the Kings. Still, according to Thornton, the youngster doesn't seem to have many gaps in his game.

"I didn't really notice any weaknesses," Thornton admitted. "I suppose the difference is that it's a lot more physical here. There are smaller rinks here and so there's a little more close contact with your opponents. That's something that he'll have to adjust to, but he's a big kid and carries a lot of weight out there.

"I don't think he's shy, so I imagine that adjustment will come pretty naturally for him."

Thornton and Kopitar met up again at Norstrom's house in late-July. Kopitar was taking part in development camp while Thornton, who agreed to a two-year free agent contract with the Kings on July 1 after playing for the rival Sharks the past five NHL seasons, was in the Southland checking out the digs on his new team.

When the Kings signed Thornton, new Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, who Scott had in San Jose when Lombardi was that club's GM, praised Thornton's overall game and his ability to help young players in particular.

"Scott brings grit, character and competitiveness to our team and a great veteran presence that we want our younger players to emulate," Lombardi said.

With Kopitar expected to prosper with the Kings long after Thornton hangs up his skates, the two teammates brief tenure together in Sweden has already helped Kopitar immensely.

"He does everything so professional," Kopitar said of Thornton. "I'm just happy to know him and maybe soon I'll have another chance to play with him."

That first opportunity begins in September during Kings training camp. And with Kopitar expected to be play in North America this year, either with the Kings or with Manchester of the American Hockey League, the similarities between Thornton and Kopitar just might not end anytime soon.

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