ONTARIO, CA — Those who have brothers or sisters should be very familiar with sibling rivalry, and even having an older sibling who excelled in everything, and then having to follow in their footsteps with those huge shoes to fill.
If you think that’s bad, imagine being the little brother trying to live up to sky-high expectations set by an older brother who is among the best in the world in his chosen field or profession.
That is exactly what Gasper Kopitar has experienced throughout his life, dealing with stratospheric expectations as he follows in the footsteps of his older brother, Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar.
The older Kopitar, now 26 years old, is considered to be among the National Hockey League’s best players, and he has excelled at every level he has played at, whether it was back home in Slovenia as a teenager, two years in Sweden, and then in the NHL with the Kings, winning the Stanley Cup in 2012.
Those are enormous skate boots to fill, and the younger Kopitar indicated that unrealistic expectations nearly drove him away from the game for good.
“Having a big brother in front of you is not easy, [especially given] how successful he is,” said Gasper. “I’ll always be in his shadow, and some people can separate that, and some people can’t. That’s what it came down to. I couldn’t [deal with that] in Sweden anymore, so I decided to leave.”
“The coach expected something from me that I’m not,” added Gasper. “It’s not fair for him, and it’s not fair for me, for him to expect that, so it was a mutual agreement that we should part ways. I think it was the best decision I’ve made so far.”
Big brother also acknowledged the comparisons.
“It’s very unfair to him, because of our last name,” said Anze. “Everybody is comparing him [to me], and it’s not just hockey. Even in school—we went to the same school. Everybody was comparing [us].”
“It’s definitely unfair because everybody has compared him [to me],” added Anze. “It’s been hard.”
It got so hard for the younger Kopitar that he quit playing for about two months, returning to his family in the Los Angeles area.
“I had a rough couple of months, but when I came back here, and decided to be with my family—my parents, my brother, and his wife, I got that ‘kick’ back, and I just wanted to play again,” Gasper noted. “My brother lives one mile from the beach. It’s nice to take the bike and ride on the beach and clear your head a little bit, and be around family.”
“I hadn’t seen my parents in awhile, so it’s been good,” Gasper added. “Then, watching the Kings play, you kind of get that kick again, that you still might want to [pursue] this.”
But getting that “kick” again took some soul searching and some talks with his older brother, even though big brother had little to offer. After all, his experiences were completely different—he was always the star.
“It’s kind of hard, because he’s never been in that position before,” said the younger Kopitar. “He’s always been dominant at any level he played at, so it’s something new to him. He just said, ‘do whatever makes you happy. I’ll stand behind you 100 percent of the time.’”
“It was hard for me, because, very rarely was I in a position where I didn’t play,” Anze noted. “That was hard for me, and I told him that. But you’ve got to entertain yourself as much as you can with something. You’ve got to find something.”
The older Kopitar indicated that despite the low points, Gasper never moped.
“He was doing a great job,” Anze stressed. “He was always professional. He wasn’t moping around. When he needed to talk, we talked. But it was hard for me, too, because I didn’t know what to tell him. I tried to cheer him up, and for the most part, I think I did a pretty good job, but it was hard.”
“This is pretty much our lives,” Anze added. “Hockey has always been first in our lives. He lost it for a little bit. It was very hard for him, and it was hard for the rest of us, just being around him, because you don’t know what to say to him. You’re trying to cheer him up, but at the end of the day, that’s what he loves to do, but he wasn’t happy with it.”
Returning to Southern California—he attended high school in the South Bay, and his girlfriend is from El Segundo—Gasper spent time at home, recharging his batteries, so to speak, and gathering his thoughts.
“At the end of the day, hockey is just a part of life,” he said. “There’s a life after hockey, too. You’ve got to think about that. I decided to come here to see what’s happening with me, to see if I change my mind or not, and I did.”
Gasper signed with the ECHL’s Ontario Reign, the Kings’ secondary minor league affiliate (he is not a Kings prospect; he was not signed to a contract with the Kings), and made his debut in a 3-0 win at Alaska on December 31.
“I left Sweden this year, and I didn’t really have the passion to play hockey anymore,” he noted. “But they called me down here, and I started practicing with them. The guys are really cool here, the management, the whole organization is awesome. It just gave me that motivation back [about] why I love hockey, and why I started playing in the first place.”
“I was lucky enough that they gave me a shot down here, and I hope I prove myself as much as I can,” he added.
Gasper, who is a center, made his home debut for the Reign on January 5, and in a storybook ending, he scored the overtime game-winner to lead Ontario to a 3-2 victory over the San Francisco Bulls on January 5.
“I was so happy to see him get the game-winner out there tonight,” said Reign assistant coach Mark Hardy, a former Kings defenseman and assistant coach. “It was nice to see that for all the hard work he’s put in here.”
“For not playing for two months, or whatever it was, he’s come in and done a great job for us,” added Hardy. “He’s worked very, very hard since he’s been here. I think he only skated four or five times, and then he [played in] three [games] in three nights.”
“He’s done a really good job for us. He’s been really receptive, he’s a great kid, he’s working his [rear end] off. It’s good to have him. He’s making some nice plays out there.”
Head coach Jason Christie has been pleased with what he has seen from the younger Kopitar so far.
“He’s added a lot,” said Christie. “He’s skilled. He’s only 21 years old. He’s his own person, he’s his own player, and he plays a different style [compared to his older brother]. He can shoot the puck hard, so it’s all a plus.”
“He’s a talented player,” added Christie. “He’s got to work on his foot speed. He’s a totally different player from his brother, and that’s what he likes. He [thrives] off that. He’s got a great shot, he’s only 21 years old, and this level fits his style of game. He competes hard. It’s only uphill from here, and we’re excited to have him.”
The older Kopitar was in attendance at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario to watch his younger brother make his home debut with the Reign.
“It’s funny,” said Christie. “We were going over there for the third, and I said, ‘your brother just texted me. He said to get a goal for him.’ It was kind of funny, and he ended up getting it. I’m glad he was able to do that with his brother [in attendance].”
“You think of special moments, as a player, with [his older brother] being able to come watch him here, and him being able to score the game-winner, that’s probably a good feeling that he’s feeling right now,” added Christie, who also acknowledged the constant comparisons people make between the two.
“[Gasper is] his own player, and I respect that in him,” Christie emphasized. “He’s here to play, and I told him that I’d never [compare] him to his brother. It’s Gasper to me, and to Harpo [Hardy]. That’s how we approach it every day. He’s paved his own way, and I respect that.”
Big brother was visibly happy about his little brother’s performance, and for more reasons than the fact that he scored the overtime game-winner.
“It’s just the fact that we were talking about it back [in October], about losing the passion for the game, and now, seeing him play and loving the game again,” the older Kopitar beamed. “It’s great. Right now, I think he’s having a good time. He’s very happy to be with the team, and with the guys. That’s the most important thing.”
“We’re just different types of [people],” said Anze. “That’s just the way it is. Whomever figures that out first, it’s going to be better for him. Harpo and [Coach Christie] know what they’re getting. They’re not comparing him to me, and that’s going to [be] good for him.”
Gasper has definitely taken a different path in his hockey career compared to his older brother. Based on his numbers, with the exception of the 2011-12 season, he has struggled everywhere he has played outside of Southern California, having played just twelve games in two seasons of major junior hockey with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.
He caught on with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League (Junior A, Tier 1), later in 2010-11, and also played there in 2011-12, scoring 36 goals and adding 27 assists for 63 points in 107 games during those two seasons.
Gasper returned to Europe in 2012-13 to play with Mora-IK in Sweden with his older brother, who was biding his time until the NHL lockout ended. In 42 games, Gasper scored eight goals and added six assists for 14 points.
This season, Gasper started the year with Mora-IK, but played in just 13 games before leaving the team, as reported earlier.
“If you look at any skilled guy at our level who has played in the USHL, he’s right up there with them,” said Christie. “His biggest thing is working on foot speed, but he’s come a long way. Once he gets into game shape—there’s no better way to get into game shape than playing three in three nights.”
“He’s got a cannon for a shot, and he’s got good hockey senses,” added Christie. “He’s a good addition for us.”
“It’s good,” Gasper said about joining the Reign. “It’s hockey. You can’t over-think it. You just play. It’s not a big difference from where I was playing last year. I just have to work hard, and everything else will come.”
Although unfair comparisons to his older brother, and the unrealistic expectations that result from them, have obviously had a negative impact on Gasper’s play, could they also be an excuse for his struggles?
This story will not delve into those possibilities. However, it seems likely that the comparisons to his older brother are not entirely responsible for Gasper’s struggles on the ice.
In any case, evidence suggests that the younger Kopitar’s passion for the game has been re-ignited, and that makes big brother very happy.
“I was always trying to help him, and still do, and always will,” he said. “But to see him struggle hurt me a lot. Now that I see he’s having fun again, and playing with passion, and the love of the game, it’s awesome.”
No Sochi For The Younger Kopitar?
Early in the season, there was a lot of buzz about the Brothers Kopitar both representing Slovenia at the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in February.
But now, after not playing for two months, Gasper is not expected to join his brother on the team that will be coached by his father, Matajz.
“I don’t think I’ll make the team because I missed a good chunk of the season, and guys back in Europe are playing awesome right now,” said Gasper. “I don’t expect the call.”
“I just want to play as best as I can here, and try to move on and prove myself on this side of the pond, too.”
Video of Gasper Kopitar’s Overtime Game-Winning Goal
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