EL SEGUNDO, CA — Well before the Los Angeles Kings hit the ice on February 24, an unusually large throng of local media had already gathered at their practice facility, the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. In fact, with all the television and radio news media present, it looked like we had skipped over the final 23 games of the regular season for the Kings and moved right into the playoffs, which is when the local broadcast media start to show up at practices.
But on this day, center Anze Kopitar returned to the Kings’ practice ice for the first time since the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia ended, and he did so as an Olympic hero, of sorts. After all, even though he did not win a medal, he led Slovenia to a nearly miraculous 3-1 win over Slovakia in the preliminary round. Slovenia also shutout Austria in the Qualification Round, 4-0, to reach the Quarterfinals.
For a team that was not expected to win a game, they soundly defeated a Slovakian team that had considerably more National Hockey League talent on their roster. In fact, Kopitar was the only NHL player on Slovenia’s roster.
Add to that the fact that they not only won another game, but that they reached the Quarterfinals‚ that almost qualifies as a miracle, given how tiny Slovenia is on the world’s hockey map.
To be sure, Slovenia’s men’s hockey team was one of the biggest stories to come out of the Sochi Games.
“It was obviously very positive,” Kopitar said of his first, and his country’s first Olympic experience in men’s hockey. “For me, personally, and most importantly for the team, I think we did really well. We opened up some eyes to the hockey world, I guess, and it was a lot of fun.”
Exceeding expectations in hockey is usually fun.
“I don’t think anybody from our team and our country thought that we were going to make it to the quarterfinals,” Kopitar beamed. “But we felt good. The first game against Russia, I think we were a little bit starstruck, and the guys, including myself, we weren’t used to playing the big venues like the Olympics is. So they came out, they scored a couple of early goals, but after that, I thought we did pretty well against them.”
“The next game against Slovakia, that was the game we circled on our calendar when the schedule came out,” Kopitar added. “We were thinking to maybe grab a point or stir the pot, but we ended up beating them pretty good, so it was a big accomplishment.”
In Slovenia’s win over Slovakia, Kopitar was the best player on the ice for the entire game, and he scored a highlight-reel goal when he carried the puck across the slot, and maneuvered around the defense, before firing a wrist shot from a bad angle—below the left circle—for the goal.
“Yeah, I’d say it was a little bit nicer than the other one I scored [during the Olympic tournament],” said Kopitar. “I’ve done it a couple of times before. But to score a goal in the Olympics, everybody wants to do that, and it was special.”
Slovenia’s strong showing at the Sochi Games could be a boon to the growth of hockey in that country.
“We’ve got 150 registered players and seven rinks, so hopefully we can expand that base a little bit,” Kopitar noted. “I guess the last couple years some good stuff has been happening with us winning the Stanley Cup and people watching that back home, the team qualifying for the Olympics, and now, this result at the Olympics, so hopefully, more and more kids are going to start playing.”
Kopitar’s father, Matjaz, has played a huge role in developing Slovenia’s men’s hockey program, and, as his team’s showing in the Olympics indicates, he also did a masterful job as their head coach.
“He took over that team—I think it was five years ago,” Kopitar explained. “One of his main goals was to make the Olympics. Everybody thought he was borderline crazy when he set that goal. The players believed in that, but the outside world [was] kind of [skeptical].”
“I think he shut’em up quite good, and he definitely did a lot for our hockey, and he’s going to continue doing that if he ends up being the coach again,” Kopitar elaborated. “I was very proud to see him stand behind the bench.”
Although NHL participation in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea is still up in the air, Kopitar hopes to have another chance to play in the Olympics.
“I hope we can,” he said. “It happens every four years. Yeah, the schedule is a little bit compressed and the travel’s not the greatest, but I think the NHL and the [NHL Players Association] did a fantastic job of organizing everything, even accommodations for the families and everybody. I guess I do hope we’re going to play again.”
“I mean, I would have been pretty upset if we qualified again and wouldn’t be able to go,” he added. “This was the first time that we qualified and we were able to go, and it was a lot of fun, and you definitely want to do to it again as an athlete.”
The primary argument against sending NHL players to the Olympics is raised after every Olympic Winter Games—the risk of injury.
But Kopitar brushed off that argument.
“It’s not like we want to get injured at the Olympics, either,” he stressed. “It’s part of the game. You can block a shot in any game, you can block a shot in practice and you get injured…I think everybody wants to play for their country on a stage like the Olympics.”
Speaking of health-related issues, Kopitar was forced to leave Slovenia’s game against the United States on February 16, a 5-1 win by the United States in the Qualification Round.
Kopitar did not play in the third period due to a stomach ailment.
“It was just something with the food,” Kopitar explained. “It didn’t sit well in my stomach. It had to come out in a certain way, and it did.”
“The food was good,” Kopitar elaborated. “It just must have been something I ate and couldn’t digest, so, again, it came out.”
Another downside to the Olympic experience for Kopitar was that he was unable to attend other events, and really take in the Olympic experience.
“No, I couldn’t, because our schedule was so compressed,” he lamented. “We played five games in seven days, so I couldn’t really do it. Even when we did play our games, they were mostly at noon, so it’s right in the middle of the day and you couldn’t do anything after, either. That was a little bit of a downside to that, but overall, it was a great experience.”
Although he did not win a medal in Sochi, Kopitar was especially happy for teammates Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty, who helped lead Canada to the Gold Medal,
“It was great,” Kopitar noted. “Drew has done it two times in a row now. He’s used to that. They both did really well. It’s one of those things where you kind of follow them and you know them exactly, and [Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick, and Slava Voynov] for that matter, too, so I thought they played really well.”
Back To Business
Now that the Sochi Games are over, it’s back to the task at hand for all NHL clubs and players.
“I don’t have any concerns,” said Kopitar. “I’ve been playing quite a bit over the break, too, I guess. We’ve done it before. All the guys are experienced enough that they’ve had breaks like that. Everybody personally knows what they have to do to get ready again.”
“I’ve gotten enough time off in the last couple days where you get away from the rink a little bit and don’t have to gear up, and I guess refresh the mind a little bit,” added Kopitar. “But I don’t think it really matters what you do if you play games or not. It’s just a matter of preparation and starting off again.”
With just 23 games left, the stretch drive is a sprint to the finish, and the Kings have little time to fix what’s broken.
“We’re not wasting any time,” Kopitar noted. “We started off the year with back-to-backs, too, and we’ve done it plenty of times before, coming off a little break like that. It just comes down to preparation and getting it going again.”
“[We have to] play our game,” Kopitar added. “I mean, we were successful before, and we can be successful again. It’s a matter of doing the stuff that has made us successful, and we’ll go from there.”
Work on becoming successful again almost took an ugly turn early in the practice session when Kopitar and left wing Kyle Clifford collided at the far end of the ice. Kopitar went down in a heap. He left the ice slowly, bent over at the waist, and sat on the bench for several minutes, raising concerns. But he returned to the ice, and looked no worse for the wear.
“Yeah, I got the warm welcome from Cliffy,” said Kopitar. “I’ll be fine.”
One More Thing From Sochi…
As noted earlier, Canada won the Gold Medal at Sochi, with Carter and Doughty among the team’s top players. When asked if he expected to be the target of some trash talking by them, Kopitar shook his head.
“They didn’t play us, so they can’t really give me [expletive deleted],” Kopitar said with a grin. “That’s about it.”
Raw Audio Interview With Anze Kopitar
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; also edited for language. Click on the arrow to listen):
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