LOS ANGELES -- Their friendship started on a golf course, where the paths of many NHL players, past and present, often intersect.
Out on the links a couple of years ago with a teammate, Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar played 18 holes with Wayne Gretzky. They became friends, and even now, as their relationship continues to grow, Kopitar can't quite get over the fact that he is exchanging messages and playing rounds of golf with the NHL's all-time leader in goals (894) and assists (1,963).
Gretzky has become an unofficial mentor to Kopitar, in his own understated way, and said that mostly involves talking about "everything but hockey." The conversations, text messages and encouragement have been particularly helpful in what has been a season of transition for Kopitar.
Kopitar, named Kings captain in June, is finding his way after a difficult first half of the season and is nicely positioning himself for a strong finish.
Kopitar assisted on Jeff Carter's overtime goal in a 1-0 road win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. He has scored at least a point in five straight games heading into the Kings' game at the Washington Capitals on Sunday (noon ET; NBC), and has seven points during that streak. He has 32 points (six goals, 26 assists) in 46 games this season, 16 of them coming in the past 14 games.
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Talking with Gretzky has helped on many levels. Kopitar said he doesn't directly ask for advice but finds his own way to learn from The Great One, the Kings captain from 1989-96.
"What I do is try to fish for some stories on how he would have done things, how he handled stuff," Kopitar said. "I try not to impose too much. He's so gracious ... I don't want him to feel I'm taking advantage by any means.
"He's the one guy ... when he talks, everybody listens. There's always something good out of it that happens and you just try to learn from that."
Of note, Gretzky has been talking about Kopitar's abilities for the past few years, since even before the Kings' first-round pick (No. 11) in the 2005 NHL Draft had his talents finally recognized in June when he won the Selke Trophy as the League's best defensive forward. Gretzky often made it a point to include Kopitar in the conversations about the game's best players.
"We're good friends, but I happen to think he's one of the best hockey players in the game today," Gretzky told NHL.com. "He plays the game the right way. Plays hard both ways. Unselfish and he's won two Stanley Cups.
"As a captain, what more do you want out of a guy? He understands and respects the game and puts his teammates ahead of him and never makes excuses when not playing well. He's front and center and I've got a lot of respect and time for him.
"[Jonathan] Toews and Kopitar and [Sidney] Crosby, Connor [McDavid] and Auston [Matthews], the list goes on and on, how classy these guys are and how much they respect people in life."
The praise from Gretzky means a lot to Kopitar, who almost looks like a little kid again, not a seasoned 29-year-old, when the compliments are passed along.
"I don't know what I did to get his blessing," Kopitar said. "Even in the World Cup, he came by. We talked and all that. When he's around here (in Los Angeles), he comes in to the room and we chat really quick. Hopefully we'll get to play a round of golf real soon.
"Just his presence, in general, means a lot. If he's got some good things to say about me, that's pretty cool too. …I text with the guy quite frequently and I still get nervous in his presence. I think I said it all right there."
The other player on the golf course that day was Justin Williams, who is in his second season with the Capitals after having played six-plus seasons with the Kings. He returned to action Saturday at Montreal after missing one game with a lower-body injury.
Gretzky compared Williams to one of his Hall of Fame teammates from his Edmonton Oilers days.
"The bigger the game, the better he played," Gretzky said. "In a lot of ways, he's like Glenn Anderson. He wasn't going to get 80 goals a year. Whenever you needed a big goal, he was a guy who would find a way to get that big goal."
Gretzky chuckled, saying, "Good kids … they're kids to me because I've got kids older than them."
His oldest, Paulina Gretzky, 28, is younger than Kopitar and Williams (35), but you get the drift.
Friendship has its limits, however. Kopitar doesn't get to partner with 2016 U.S. Open golf champion Dustin Johnson, who is engaged to Paulina.
"As much as we play golf together, I still won't let him be partners with Dustin, I'm Dustin's partner. When you get 895 goals you can be his partner," Gretzky said, laughing.