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Kopitar grew up in a hurry

October 11, 2008|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

He was the son of a well-known hockey coach and had a full-size rink built into his backyard, and his skills were unmatched by his peers.

Yet Anze Kopitar knew it wasn't enough.

He wasn't quite 17 when he traveled from his home country of Slovenia to Sweden, settling by himself in a cramped apartment and joining the only club that extended him a tryout. He walked, bicycled or hopped a bus to get to the 6,200-seat arena, where he competed with and against grown men.

"I had to," Kopitar says, "if I wanted to improve."

Four years later, Kopitar is a third-year center on the Kings and is considered one of the most exciting players in the NHL.

"Hockey has always been first in my life," he says. "I knew I'd have to sacrifice something for that and I did."

As the Kings prepare for their season opener tonight in San Jose, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound playmaker will be counted on again to anchor the team's top scoring line. He was also selected as an alternate captain this week, giving him more of a voice on a team where the average age is now just under 26, third-youngest in the NHL.

"He's a clear-cut No. 1 center iceman in the league right now," says Coach Terry Murray, who succeeded Marc Crawford over the summer. "As we just get through this process of pushing younger guys to the next level, we're going to see a fantastic hockey player come out of this whole thing."

Kopitar has been lauded for his mixture of size, skill and speed, but Murray has been equally impressed by his vision on the ice, his leadership and maturity. Murray has a hard time believing Kopitar recently turned 21.

"He cares about people," Murray says. "You can tell that just by the way he handles himself, the questions he asks."

When you're buying groceries at 16 and trying to skate around men twice your age, you don't have a choice but to learn fast, Kopitar points out. The hardest part was dealing with the homesickness.

"There are times when certain people have to grow up," he says. "That time came pretty early for me."

In 2005, a year after moving to Sweden, Kopitar was drafted in the first round, 11th overall, by the Kings. He was invited to the team's rookie camp that fall but decided it was best to remain with his Swedish team. He also passed on an opportunity to play in Canada for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League.

"I figured playing in the Swedish Elite League is going to make me a little better than playing juniors over here," he says.

The following NHL exhibition season, Kopitar accepted the Kings' invitation to rookie camp and quickly made an impression. When he made his NHL debut on Oct. 6, 2006, he became the first Slovenian to play in the league. He scored two goals in the 4-3 loss to the Ducks.

"I remember his first goal," says Dustin Brown, who has skated on Kopitar's line the last two seasons. "He just skated right around [Chris] Pronger, and it didn't look like he was going that fast."

In his home debut the next night, Kopitar produced three assists in a 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues. By the end of the season he ranked third among rookies with 61 points in 72 games, behind only Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin with 85 points and Colorado's Paul Stastny with 78.

Last season, he totaled 77 points in 82 games and was the youngest player selected to the All-Star game.

"He has the capability to change a game single-handedly," says Patrick O'Sullivan, another of Kopitar's linemates the last two seasons. "I think he's a top-10 center man in the league, and he's only going to get better."

When the players first met, O'Sullivan -- like Murray -- was struck by Kopitar's maturity.

"You can tell he has gone through a lot and had to grow up early," O'Sullivan says. "That translates into how he plays."

Kopitar is honored to be the only NHL player from Slovenia, which has a population of about 2 million and is about the size of New Mexico. He is surprised other Slovenians haven't reached the NHL but concedes it's a long and winding path.

"You've got to work hard, you've got to have the talent, you've got to be the right player at the right time," he says. "I was pretty fortunate. I had that moment."

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dan.arritt@latimes.com

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ON THE WEB

Return: Patrick O'Sullivan expects to make his season debut in home opener Sunday.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Five keys for the Kings

1.The Kings used seven players in goal last season and none could stop the bleeding. Jason LaBarbera has the confidence of Coach Terry Murray heading into the season, but can he remain confident in himself?

2. The goalies weren't completely to blame for giving up the most goals in the Western Conference last season. It's tough to stop a shot when the opposing puck-handler is close enough to see the goaltender sweat. Reducing the high-percentage scoring chances has been a priority for Murray.

3. With five rookies on the roster, Murray will need to juggle patience with his will to win. No word on whether the Kings will be allowed to change their penalty box to a timeout bench.

4. Alexander Frolov is one of the team's most skilled players, and he protects the puck like a wad of cash. If he can avoid the groin injuries that took him out of the lineup twice last season and again during training camp, he's good enough to average a point a game.

5. Murray is a pacifist compared with last season's coach, Marc Crawford, who always seemed on the verge of popping a vein in his neck. The young players seem to appreciate Murray's Gandhi-like persona, but will they end up treating him like a substitute teacher?

-- Dan Arritt

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