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KINGS REPORT

Kopitar starting to get star treatment

December 10, 2006|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

Anze Kopitar is living the typical life of a Southern California teenager.

He hangs out at his Manhattan Beach apartment, checking out the surf. He occasionally gets to a Lakers game. Once in a while, he hits the mall.

What makes him different? He's slowly becoming the face of the Kings, hardly normal for a 19-year-old rookie center in the NHL.

As the Kings meander through the 2006-07 season, die-hard fans have latched on to Kopitar as their feel-good safety net. There is a lot to like. The only thing that has been more consistently on than Kopitar at Staples Center is the red light behind the Kings' net.

Kopitar, averaging 20 minutes per game, began Saturday second to the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin in scoring among NHL rookies with 24 points.

The public, it seems, has latched on.

"I was recognized in a restaurant by some fans," said Kopitar, who is hard to miss with scarecrow-like blond hair.

Another fan recognized him at a Lakers game and sat down to talk.

"I guess that is good to be noticed," Kopitar said. "But I'm not playing to get that attention, I am just trying to get better each day."

The nonchalant way he has handled the jump to the NHL has impressed the Kings' hierarchy.

"He is very grounded," Coach Marc Crawford said. "We can't take credit for that. He had a real good upbringing."

The Kings, while wary of asking too much, have slowly worked Kopitar's name into television promotions for upcoming games.

Kopitar, the first Slovenian to play in the NHL, finds all the attention amusing, and is quick to say, "Let me be in the league a few seasons before we talk about all that."

That outlook is fine with General Manager Dean Lombardi.

"All the tools are there [for Kopitar] to be something special," Lombardi said. But the marketing campaign "is a bit premature," the GM added.

Still, Lombardi said, "He is not only a gifted player, he has subtleties to his game that you can't teach.... He needs to be the best athlete, focus on that, and everything else will take care of itself."

*

Goaltender Jason LaBarbera stopped 34 shots for Manchester (N.H.) in a 2-0 victory Friday over Lowell (Mass.) for his third shutout this season. LaBarbera has started 10 consecutive games for the American Hockey League team since Barry Brust was recalled by the Kings. The NHL team's management did not want to risk losing LaBarbera, who would have to clear waivers before he could be called up.

LaBarbera ranks second in the AHL with a .929 save percentage and eighth with a 2.37 goals-against average.

chris.foster@latimes.com

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