"When my dad played, everybody was crazy about hockey and really into it. There were a lot of sellouts. I could probably best describe it as a mini-Canada at that time since it was so popular." -- Anze Kopitar
Long before he was a hockey prodigy, Anze Kopitar
knew learning English would one day work in his favor.
"My grandmother was a teacher in primary school in my hometown (Jesenice, Slovenia) and I guess learning English sounded pretty cool at the time," Kopitar told NHL.com. "One day, I was imagining playing hockey somewhere else and said to myself, 'I'll need English.' So, she helped me out big time and here I am talking to you today."
Sounds simple enough, but Kopitar's imaginative instincts and prophetic insight are just a few qualities that have provided him the opportunity no other Slovenian hockey player ever received at the time -- a chance to play in the NHL.
Raised in Jesenice when Slovenia was still considered part of Yugoslavia, Kopitar basically had three choices -- soccer, basketball or hockey. His passion turned to the ice at the age of 5 when his father, Matjaz, who also played hockey in Jesenice as a youngster and would later coach his son, was a tremendous role model.
"Jesenice is very small and is known for its steel factories, but everything is pretty much shutting down now and people are working in other businesses, but it's a great hockey town," Kopitar said. "Dad made an ice surface back home which was pretty special and I started skating there before playing youth hockey for the town's club team.
"When my dad played, everybody was crazy about hockey and really into it," he continued. "There were a lot of sellouts. I could probably best describe it as a mini-Canada at that time since it was so popular."
He honed his skills in the nation's senior and junior leagues in 2002-03, playing 20 games with HK Acroni Jesenice and finishing with 15 goals and 27 points.
"My mom (Mataja) worked in the family restaurant and we would just call her our cab driver because she would drive me and my brother (Gasper) to school and hockey practice," Kopitar recalled. "I realize now how much she did for us, working in the restaurant and driving us all over and that paid off big time for me."
It was in January 2003 at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Bled, Slovenia, where a few European scouts got their first glimpse of Kopitar. One year later, he again flourished at the Under-18 Division 1 World Championship in Austria, finishing third in scoring with six goals and eight points to lead his country to a second-place showing. All the while, he was competing for and against players considerably older.
At the age of 16, Kopitar decided to take his show on the road and head north into Sweden in attempt to improve his chances of winning over an NHL franchise.
"I didn't know where I was going or what would happen," Kopitar said. "We all felt I had to take that next step; my family was supportive 100 percent and they came and visited me to make the transition a little easier. It was a decision I had to make and believe in."
In Sweden, Kopitar joined the Sodertalje junior team, producing 28 goals and 49 points in 30 games. Despite being miles from home, alone and adjusting to an entirely new lifestyle, Kopitar began arousing the interest of scouts who hadn't seen him in Slovenia.
"I didn't know what to think when I began playing in Sweden," Kopitar said. "You're in there and all of a sudden, I'm trying to compete with these guys who probably even played in the NHL at some time. I just tried to prepare myself the best I could and I think it turned out pretty good, so it was a positive experience."
On July 30, 2005, Kopitar finally realized his dream when the Kings drafted him with the 11th pick of the first round.
"I was in Sweden at the time (of the NHL Draft) starting preseason games so I couldn’t get to the actual Draft (in Ottawa), but we organized a little party and a few other guys from the team joined me (including Devils first-round draft pick Nicklas Bergfors), so it was a lot of fun," Kopitar recalled. "We were watching the draft on the internet on a big screen and when I finally got the call from my agent, who told me I was going to the Kings, I think I was in shock."
Detroit Red Wings
Director of European Scouting Hakan Andersson, who has discovered many late-round gems including Tomas Holmstrom
(257th in 1994), Pavel Datsyuk
(171st '98), Henrik Zetterberg
(210th in '99), Niklas Kronwall
(29th in 2000), Jiri Hudler
(58th in '02), Valtteri Filppula
(95th in '02), Jonathan Ericsson
(291st in '02) and Johan Franzen
(97th in '04), said Kopitar was easily the top European prospect of the '05 draft.
"To me, he was by far No. 1 in Europe," Andersson told NHL.com. "There was no question. I would have loved to draft him, but I knew we had no hope of getting him (picking 19th in the first round)."
Kopitar was invited to join the Kings at training camp that season but decided to spend one more year in Sweden, scoring 8 goals and 20 points in 47 games. He officially joined the team as a rookie in 2006-07 and, accompanied to Hermosa Beach, Calif. by his family, had a relatively smooth transition.
"It was my dad's idea to have the family come over (to California)," Kopitar said. "It was great because to have them there allowed me to just think about hockey and not have to worry about those other things like cooking, laundry and cleaning up the house. When I returned home, a hot meal was there. It really helped me make an easy adjustment."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.