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Tapped In: Kopitar on blazing path to NHL

by Kathryn Tappen

Anze Kopitar helped bring the city of Los Angles and the Kings franchise its first Stanley Cup in 2012. Widely considered to be the Kings' best offensive weapon, Kopitar is one of the most dynamic players in the world. To add to his already impressive resume, Kopi, as he's affectionately called, looks to make history with his father in Sochi next month.

Kathryn Tappen: Describe what growing up in Slovenia is like.

Anze Kopitar: My hometown was a big steel factory town. It was also a hockey town. Other towns nearby were known for soccer, basketball and handball, and my town was known for hockey. My dad played, so it wasn't really hard for me to start playing either. It's not a big town, only about 12,000 people. We lived in the suburbs of it so there was no hassle to drive in every day. [Note: Anze's father, Matjaz Kopitar, played for HK Acroni Jesenice in Yugoslavia and later Slovenia and won championship in the 1980s and 1990s, and competed in three World Championships.]

KT: When did you first learn how to skate?

A hero in his native Slovenia and the first player from the country to play in the NHL, Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar talks about his upbringing, his path to stardom and the thrill of playing for his father in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. (Photo: Getty Images)

AK: I started off around 4 years old playing in my backyard where my dad and grandfather made me an ice surface. That's where I learned how to skate. I give my dad credit for starting my hockey career. After that I was playing in the local arena and I played there up until I left for Sweden.

KT: What was it like moving away from home to play in the Swedish Elite league at age 16?

AK: It was tough. It was easier for me than it was for my family. We are all very close and it was difficult for them to see me go. It was easier for me because I was so focused on hockey and chasing my dreams that I didn't think too much about leaving home. Of course it was hard, but I had the distraction of joining my new team and playing the game. I felt that it was the best thing to do for me.

KT: Did you make friends right away in Sweden?

AK: Oh yes. I think every hockey player would say that once you get traded or moved around you automatically have 20 new friends. It's a fairly easy transition because you go into the locker room and there are guys there waiting for you, trying to help you out. Especially coming from another country everyone was so nice to me so the transition was not as hard as I thought it would be.

KT: You've followed in your dad's footsteps of becoming a professional hockey player.

AK: Yes I did. He played in my country, but with the communist regime back then he couldn't leave the country until he was 29 years old. By that time I was already in school and he didn't want to leave home. But he did have some really good years playing hockey back home. Later on we opened up a family sports bar and restaurant called "Kopitar Bar." We sold it when my parents moved to Los Angeles.

KT: You became the first Slovenian to play in the NHL in 2006. What does that mean to you?

AK: It's a big honor for me to play the first NHL game. At first you're just trying to make it. Then there's the point where you're trying to stick and really make a name for yourself. Then comes the prime where you want to win it. I was fortunate to accomplish all of those things. You want to be remembered as a winner. For me, it's great for the country. There may be a few more hockey players to come out of my country. This year is the very first time we made the Olympics which tells me that the hockey has grown back home.

KT: Speaking of the Olympics: You will be representing the Slovenian national team in Sochi playing for your father, who is the coach. How much are you looking forward to that opportunity?

AK: Personally it's going to be a great experience. It will be one of those defining moments in my career when I ultimately look back on my hockey life. You don't know what to expect until you get there. The stage that the Olympic games are is something special and I know it's going to be very exciting.

KT: Do you have many Olympic conversations with your father regarding the Slovenian team going to Sochi?

AK: We have a few conversations here and there. For me, I need to continue focusing on what we have to do here in L.A. When the time comes my dad and I will have some talks about Sochi.

KT: Would you say that you lean on your dad more for hockey advice, or vice versa?

AK: I think it's definitely a two-way street. Now that I'm older I do feel more comfortable speaking up than just listening as I did as a kid. He's also realized that I have done a few things right throughout my hockey career and my hockey sense is OK. He does listen to me for many things but I also still love getting advice from my dad. It's a two-way street for sure.

KT: You moved your family to Los Angeles a few years ago. Why was it so important to have them there?

AK: It was a little bit hard for my family when they moved here because it's a very different culture. My brother Gasper, who is five years younger than me, went to high school here. That was a little tough for him. But I think they've adjusted very well. We have some good times together and they're able to be a part of this experience with me.

KT: For you personally living in L.A. must have been a culture shock as well when you first got there.

AK: You come from a country with 2 million people to the city of L.A. with 12 million. It's quite an adjustment with all the craziness that goes on in this city. But me, my wife [Ines], my brother [Gasper], everyone here have adjusted really well. The weather is always nice. I've been here for eight years and can call it home now. We do go home to Slovenia in the offseason. All our friends and a lot of family are still back home so it's nice to take a break and see them. But I love being a part of the L.A. Kings. We have a hardcore fan base who wants to see us perform night in and night out, so it's great to be a part of that.

KT: If you had your way, would you prefer to wear shorts and flip flops to the rink instead of suits?

AK: [laughs] If we can work that into the [Collective Bargaining Agreement] that if you play in L.A. you can wear shorts to the rink, that would be great.

KT: You recently had an appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres show for breast cancer awareness month. Tell me about that experience.

AK: The show asked my team if I could come and try to raise money for breast cancer. Obviously with the popularity of that show it was hard for me to say no. I'll admit, I was nervous to go meet Ellen and shoot those pucks. Overall it was a really fun experience. The Make-A-Wish Foundation brought in Tyler [Fithian, an 18-year-old with acute lymphoblastic leukemia whose wish was to skate with Kopitar], and he got to stay with me for part of the day. We brought him to the game the next day and I actually scored my first goal of the season with him at the game, so he was my good-luck charm.

KT: You speak five languages -- Slovenian, English, German, Swedish, Croatian. Which one was the most difficult to learn?

AK: I always thought English was fairly easy but felt German was really hard. Definitely harder than English. When I played in Sweden I figured out a way to mix the words between German and English a little bit and combine them both. You're pretty safe to understand fairly well.

KT: Which language do you use the least?

AK: I haven't talked German in a while, so that would be the one.

KT: Outdoor hockey is coming to LA on Jan. 25. You've attended many Dodgers games; what will it be like to play in a regular-season hockey game at Dodger Stadium?

AK: It's going to be a great experience for all of us. Dodger Stadium is one of the oldest in the league and it's recently renovated so it's beautiful. It's every kid's dream to play in an outdoor game. For us to get the chance to play, especially in California, is going to be very special.

KT: Will you ask for your favorite player, Andre Ethier's locker?

AK: I may have to talk with the trainers about that one.

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