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Slovenians excited for NHL first

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Slovenian Jan Mursak has a goal and two assists for the Red Wings in 15 games this season after coming back from a fractured ankle. (Photo by Dave Reginek)
DETROIT – Anze Kopitar knew the day that two Slovenians playing against one another in the same NHL game would come sooner than later.

That day is today.

Kopitar leads his Los Angeles Kings into Joe Louis Arena tonight to face-off against the Red Wings, and his countryman and friend, Jan Mursak.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a couple of years now, since he’s been in the Wings’ organization,” said Kopitar, of the Wings’ rookie forward. “He’s a really good player and I knew it was just a matter of time before he was going to break through and come up with the big boys and play.”

However, a serious injury in the preseason could have postponed this day, but Mursak rebounded from his fractured ankle and has fit nicely into the Wings’ lineup since mid-January making this historical day possible.

“I didn’t know if this game would happen this year,” Kopitar said, “so I’m happy for him that he’s been in the lineup consistently now, and I’m looking forward to tonight.”

But this regular-season game brings with it a genuine sense of pride for both players, considering that it’s easy to overlook Slovenia as a hockey-producing nation. After all, the tiny European country is smaller than New Jersey with fewer than two million inhabitants and only two NHL exports.

“Well, Slovenia is really small, so every hockey player knows the other guy,” Mursak said. “But yeah, (Kopitar) is a very good player and everyone back home knows him and we’ve been friends probably for a long time, since under-18 juniors.”

Both players said they’ve already heard the scuttle from back home about their memorable matchup. “It’s in the news and the newspapers they’re all talking about tonight’s game, we’ll see, hopefully we can win tonight,” said Mursak, who has played in 34 NHL games.

As 15-year-olds, Kopitar and Mursak – despite living at opposite ends of the country, which is only a two-hour drive – played against each other in Solvenia’s youth hockey league. It’s were the two players learned to appreciate each other’s skills, and eventually landed the pair together on the national squad at the 2004 Under-18 World Junior Championship.

Together, Kopitar and Mursak helped Slovenia win a silver medal in 2004 and a bronze medal at the U-20 World Junior Championship one year later.

A leader for the Kings and a seasoned NHL veteran with 460 games played, Kopitar has assimilated himself to the North American way of hockey, as well as the lifestyle away from the ice. It’s something that each young European player, like Mursak, must learn on his own, he said.   
“He’s a good guy, not too loud, not too chatty and a little quiet,” Kopitar said. “But on the ice he can skate, definitely, and he’s got a good shot and a good hockey sense, so it’s a good package. Obviously, he can be really good. He deserves to play on that team, which is a pretty loaded team. I think it will take him a few years to figure it out with what to do, and how to do it, but I’m sure he’ll do just fine.”

For such a tiny country, Mursak has had quite the influence, even drawing an 18-member fan club of Slovenians who traveled from Europe to see him play last week in Detroit.

“It was fun,” Mursak said. “I really didn’t know these people, which made it even more special, because Slovenia is so small and we don’t have players in the NHL, so they are very proud of us. I meet them afterwards, they came down to the locker room and they were pretty happy.”

Despite the historic nature of the two Slovenians, the Wings and Kings are viewing the matchup from a Western Conference standing viewpoint.

The Wings are four-points behind the Western-leading St. Louis Blues, who are idle Friday night. Meanwhile, the Kings, who are one-point out of the eighth and final playoff berth in the West, dropped a 3-1 decision Thursday at Columbus.

“This is a big game for us, especially since we didn’t get the outcome that we wanted last night,” Kopitar said. “In the position that we are in right now, we need the two-points. We still have faith in where we are right now and can still control our own destiny, so that’s all you want, but we have to perform and win games.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill

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