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Kopitar proud of Slovenia's run at Olympics

by Dan Rosen

SOCHI -- Anze Kopitar was crushed with disappointment yet swelled with pride, contrasting feelings he had never really had before Wednesday.

On one hand, the Los Angeles Kings center, the only current NHL player representing Slovenia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, had just bowed out of the tournament via a 5-0 loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals. Regardless if Slovenia was not expected to be among the final eight teams standing here, nobody wants to lose, least of all a guy who has been to the top of the mountain in the NHL as a Stanley Cup champion.

"At the end of the day, it always stinks losing," Kopitar said.

But this loss was different, probably different than any Kopitar has experienced in his hockey career. Attached to this loss was a feeling of satisfaction, of national pride, of accomplishment.

Slovenia, a national team that was relegated after a 16th-place finish in the 2013 IIHF World Championship, demanded the attention and captured the imagination of hockey fans across the globe in its first appearance in the Olympics since splitting from Yugoslavia to become an independent country in 1991.

The Slovenians won two games in a tournament that was set up for them to lose them all, having been lumped into a group with Russia, Slovakia and the United States.

They played Russia close in their opener before losing 5-2. The Russians had to score twice early in the third period to put the Slovenians away.

Two days later, Slovenia stunned Slovakia with a 3-1 victory. Kopitar joked afterward that maybe now people will stop confusing Slovenia for Slovakia.

The Slovenians couldn't handle the United States in a 5-1 loss less than 24 hours after beating the Slovaks, but Kopitar and his teammates reached the quarterfinals with a 4-0 win against Austria in the qualification round Tuesday.

It was so much more than everybody expected, even the Slovenian players.

"To be quite honest, we thought we could come in and stir the pot a little bit, maybe get a point here and there, and see what happens," Kopitar said. "After we played Russia I thought our confidence came up a bit. The way we played against the Slovaks was obviously a huge confidence-builder. After that, I mean, we were a confident bunch. We felt we got a few more tricks up our sleeves. Again, the quarterfinals at the Olympics is really well done for us."

How well done can be measured by what's going on with hockey back home.

There are currently seven rinks and fewer than 150 registered male hockey players in Slovenia, a small country of roughly two million people. There is one professional hockey team in Slovenia, Olimpija Ljubljana, which plays in Austria's professional league, Erste Bank Eishockey Liga.

After beating Slovakia, Slovenia coach Matjaz Kopitar, the star's father, said maybe the win would convince the authorities back home to build a few more rinks.

Following the loss to Sweden, a proud but reserved coach Kopitar simply said in his charming yet somewhat broken English, "I hope something we will get out of it."

Then he talked about the next challenge his team will face.

Slovenia will try to win its way into the 2015 IIHF World Championship when it plays in a six-nation round robin in South Korea two months from now, likely without Anze Kopitar, of course. The top two finishers will play in the World Championship next year.

"I think the players are eager to play after this success," Matjaz Kopitar said. "I think we're going to be ready."

They were ready to play in the Olympics, the granddaddy of international hockey tournaments, and perhaps their unexpected run to the quarterfinals has given birth to a new contender.

"When there is talk of hockey countries, I hope we can be in the mix with maybe not all the big guys, but the middle class that are trying to knock off the bigger guys," Anze Kopitar said. "We've done it here, and hopefully that's going to be recognized."


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