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Kings' Anze Kopitar makes the NHL more popular in Slovenia

Center says 'there is actually a pretty big buzz back there' about the Kings' taking on New Jersey in the Stanley Cup Final and about him, one of two Slovenians to play in the league.

May 27, 2012|By Chris Foster
  • Kings center Anze Kopitar reacts after scoring against the Coyotes in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
Kings center Anze Kopitar reacts after scoring against the Coyotes in Game… (Harry How / Getty Images )

It would be darn near impossible to find a hockey fan in Slovenia who isn't rooting for the Kings.

Call it the Anze Kopitar factor.

"There is actually a pretty big buzz back there," said Kopitar, the Kings' 24-year-old center. "I've been going on online and reading some of the news from back there. The Kings are pretty big."

And Kopitar?

"There's a little more focus on me," Kopitar said. "It's nice for hockey to get a little attention back home."

With the Kings set to play the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Final, expect more local-boy-makes-good stories in the country of 2 million people.

Of course, when the NHL does get attention in Slovenia, it's usually focused on Kopitar. He was the first player from the country to reach the NHL. Only one other, Detroit Red Wings forward Jan Mursak, has followed in his skate prints.

A Stanley Cup title would put Kopitar on a very short list in his homeland.

Sasha Vujacic won NBA titles with the Lakers. Slovenian athletes have won Olympic gold medals in three events — Primoz Kozmus (hammer throw), Rajmond Debevec (shooting), and Iztok Cop and Luka Spik (rowing).

So a Stanley Cup champion might rate a dinner at the Slovenian embassy.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Kopitar said.

Still, Kopitar returns home every summer and has noticed a growth in Slovenian hockey. It's a matter of pride for a player whose father, Matjaz Kopitar, was a player and coach.

"There are more and more kids playing hockey," Kopitar said. As for whether he is responsible, Kopitar said, "Maybe a little."

The path from Slovenia to the NHL is not a straight line. Kopitar played two seasons in Sweden before being drafted 11th overall in 2005. Even with his succès, NHL scouts have not flocked to his country.

"You have to have a little luck," Kopitar said. "Someone to see you. You can't just show up and say, 'Look, I'm ready to play.' "

Mursak played junior hockey in the Czech Republic before being drafted by the Red Wings in 2006. He and Kopitar faced each other twice this season.

"We had a couple dinners in Detroit and a couple out here when we played them," Kopitar said. "It was nice to be around someone from home."

Finishing touches

The Kings had their last practice Sunday before traveling east for the Cup Final, with Game 1 on Wednesday. They will have had an eight-day layoff between games after finishing off the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday.

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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