- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Anze Kopitar’s story doesn’t seem all that different from those of other European hockey players.

He grew up in a blue-collar hockey town of a little more than 20,000 people. His father, Matjaz, was a hockey player and coached his son. His mother, Mataja, worked at the family-owned restaurant, and Kopitar’s maturity is a reflection of the good household he grew up in.

But Kopitar comes from Jesenice, Slovenia, and he is the first person from the country to play in the NHL. Jesenice is a steel town nestled in the Karavanke mountain range along the border with Austria. The country was part of Yugoslavia until declaring its independence in 1991 and is known more for its basketball players.

“It is really a good feeling. and hopefully there is going to be some more guys coming,” Kopitar said. “Even back home all the crowds and everything react pretty good to it, and I think they are all happy for me.

“My town was more of a hockey town, so it was always just skating after school. Basketball is not big in my town, but it is big in my country. I always just kind of liked hockey more.”

Kopitar appears likely to be more than just the NHL’s first Slovenian. He ranks second to Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin among rookies with 46 points. The 19-year-old dazzles opponents and Los Angeles Kings teammates on a nightly basis with a combination of skill and hockey sense beyond his years.

The Kings were fortunate that Kopitar, probably because of his background, was available to be selected with the 11th pick in the 2005 draft. He has quickly become the face of the franchise and could, like Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille, be the dynamic star who makes the Kings relevant again in Los Angeles.

“We’re really excited where Anze is going to bring this club. One of the biggest things you look for is a No. 1 center, and we have one and we’re going to have him for quite a few years,” said Kings coach Marc Crawford, who likened Kopitar to a young Mats Sundin. “For us, he plays in all situations. He’s really being pushed here and we know we are pushing him, but we might as well see just how he learns in the situations that we keep throwing him in.”

With the Kings on the West Coast and in the cellar of the Pacific Division, Kopitar has not received the same attention as other young stars like Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Malkin. He is just 19 days older than Crosby and has many of the same No. 1 center qualities.

Ovechkin, who will face Kopitar and the Kings tonight at Verizon Center, is beloved in hockey circles for his outgoing personality and quick wit. Kopitar, with long, wavy blond locks fit for a surfer and an excellent grasp of the English language (which comes from his schooling in Jesenice, where he started learning four days a week in the fifth grade), has some of the same personality traits and could become a marketing star for the NHL in such a large market.

“I think we both [like to have a lot of fun.] We are pretty similar, and I think that is why we get along so well,” said Kopitar’s roommate and linemate, Patrick O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan, who lived in Winston-Salem, N.C., until he was 10 years old, knows about coming from a place where hockey players usually don’t.

“For him, it is pretty amazing considering where he has come from and he is able to fit right in here in North America,” O’Sullivan said. “I think the fact that he could speak [English] fluently was a big help for sure. If there is anything I can help him out with, I usually let him know. I like to correct his grammar — he doesn’t like that too much.”

When Kopitar was 16, he left his family and Slovenia and moved to Sweden to play against better competition. He lived alone in a new country, which helped him grow up fast. Now he lives with O’Sullivan in Hermosa Beach, Calif. He also has become fast friends with Los Angeles Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic, another native Slovenian.

“We live on the beach and it is really nice,” Kopitar said. “There are a lot of things to do there, and it is always nice to have someone around to go do stuff with. I really enjoy living in L.A. now.”

Added O’Sullivan: “We have our chores. I do most of the cleaning and we don’t cook very much, but when we do I usually do that. He just sits around pretty much, but in turn for that I got the big bedroom, so it is a fair trade.”

Kopitar centers a line with 22-year-olds O’Sullivan and Dustin Brown that is one of the youngest in the league. Along with Alexander Frolov and Mike Cammalleri (both 24), plus another wave of prospects on the horizon led by defenseman Jack Johnson and a high pick in the upcoming draft (currently No. 2), the Kings have a strong young nucleus that rivals those of teams that receive far more attention like the Caps and Penguins.

“From our standpoint we are very excited about where the youth of the club is,” said Crawford, who helped a young Quebec Nordiques team mature and win a Stanley Cup after the franchise moved to Colorado. “A lot of the pieces are there and the veteran people that we’ve got, we have greatness in [Rob] Blake and [Mattias] Norstrom. You get those types of guys to show your young guys how to do it.”

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