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Magazine > Celebrity
As seen in the Summer 2012 issue.

In Anze We Trust
Anze Kopitar star may be rising in one of the world's biggest cities, but he'll always be a small town boy at heart.
By Dennis BErnstein | Photography by Gary Livingston

Hailing from a small village known for its steel mills and beautiful countryside, Slovenia native Anze Kopitar didn't exactly enjoy the same benefits of a hockey program that most future NHLers get in their formative years. But as we see time and time again, when it's in your blood, you find a way to make it happen.

"My dad and my granddad made me a little ice surface right in the backyard and I pushed a chair around on the ice when I was young," Kopitar recalls. "As soon as I had the ability to stand up, I got a hockey stick and I started skating."

From that tiny backyard pond, the 24-year-old became first NHL player to hail from the small country nestled between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. Not surprisingly, the history-maker was already a standout for his early days in hometown club HK Acroni and the Slovenian national junior team. Selected in the same class as Sidney Crosby, the Kings made Kopitar the eleventh overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Showing intelligence beyond his years, Kopitar opted to play two seasons in the Swedish Elite League before arriving in the City of Angels. By virtue of a huge training camp prior to the season, Kopitar showed he was ready for the primetime and, keeping the pioneering spirit going, became one of only a handful of players ever to make the roster without ever playing a minute in the North American minor league system.

Of course, it didn't hurt that Kopitar's toolbox was NHL-level, but as with most youngsters, his conditioning and defensive play needed work. The six-foot three-incher worked hard in the weight room and in the faceoff dot at practice and within three seasons has become a dangerous two-way player, a two-time All Star and the Kings' leading scorer for five consecutive seasons. His physical play against former Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin was one of the keys to victory in the team's April upset against the Canucks, giving the Kings arguably their biggest playoff upset in franchise history.

But while his tale has all the storybook hallmarks, it hasn't been all lollipops and roses. At the end of the 2010-11 season, Kopitar was checked hard against the board in a late season game and fell awkwardly to the ice. The result was a broken ankle; his season ended and so did the Kings' playoff chances. While a player with lesser character would have sulked about his misfortune, Kopitar stayed around his teammates and when the time came for the gruelling physical work needed to get back to the elite level, he was committed. As he started the season, Kopitar was ready to engage for battle and the injury was forgotten. "I feel great," he said in October. "Honestly, they put a metal plate in my ankle and now it's probably stronger than it was before."

Kopitar's defiance of the odds has paid off in his personal life, too. Though he wasn't drafted by Dean Lombardi, the Kings' current GM recognized the left-handed shooter as a core player whose destiny would be tied to team's success. So when the Jesenice native's entry-level contract expired, Lombardi stepped up and awarded him a seven-year, $47.6 million deal on Oct. 11, 2008 making him the team's highest paid player.

"Anze is a special player, but he has also shown a strong work ethic and the type character we believe is necessary to help shape the core of our team," Lombardi affirmed at the time.

Though he's now an established star with material wealth beyond anything he could have imagined, Kopitar remains the same unassuming and matter-of-fact character he was on Day One. He has a cutting sense of humour and routinely chirps his linemate and captain Dustin Brown at the locker next door. Though he rides Brown about everything from never receiving the puck back from the great passes he delivers to the American's Olympic Silver (not Gold) medal, the pair enjoys a real and genuine friendship.

Friendship aside, Kopitar is aware of the potential sponsorship opportunities of being a personable guy playing in the second largest media market. Since becoming one of the faces of the franchise, he's getting more play in national commercials, like the Verizon campaign he filmed earlier this season. He's also one of the increasing numbers of players who have taken to social media to extend their off-ice persona. He has his own Twitter account (@AnzeKopitar -- but the content nowhere near approaches the legendary Paul Bissonnette) and his personal website,, includes biographical information and fantastic photos of his childhood with his dad Matjaz and brother Gaspar, who now toils in the USHL.

During a break from this season's playoff run, Kopitar reflected on the ride to stardom. "I think every kid's goal is to play in the NHL," he says. "Coming from Slovenia, I didn't know if that was the target from the start, I didn't set my goals that high. At home, English is the second language, so I didn't have a choice about learning it in school. My grandmother was a teacher, so that definitely helped me. As things developed and my career took twists and turns, I went to the Swedish Elite League and then I knew the NHL was in sight. Getting drafted in the first round was big, my name was out there, so the goal was definitely within my grasp."

While his arrival on Pacific coast signified a completely new way of life, the European tendency to travel well and travel frequently made the transition a little easier. Still, that doesn't mean the bright lights of Los Angeles didn't trigger a little culture shock.

"I had been to Canada for a Pee-Wee tournament in Quebec, but never been to the States. The first time you set your foot down at the airport in Los Angeles, you don't realize how big it is, but my first time here was a development camp, not a vacation. I saw the rink and the training facility my first couple of weeks so you can't grab the size of the city and how spread out things are here. At first, it was easy because I was so busy, but there was definitely an adjustment period. You learn where highways go to and you have to find a way to get yourself around."

Now a six-year native of La-La Land, Kopitar has settled into the comfortable California lifestyle. Like a large majority of his teammates, he's nestled in the beautiful community of Manhattan Beach -- not far from the Brown family -- and occasionally offers dog-sitting services. "I love the South Bay," he readily admits. "It's great. You have everything you want here."

But unlike so many other high-profile athletes in SoCal, you won't find this 24-year-old in any of the tabloids. Kopitar is no party animal, preferring a quiet beach life over the crazy nights in West Hollywood.

"I'd much rather go to dinner with friends than driving 45 minutes and getting stuck in traffic in Hollywood. That's not me," he states matter-of-factly.

So while Kopitar may not live the high life in that regard, he's bought into the Californian lifestyle in another way. Using the spoils of his labour, Anze decided to make those legendary L.A. traffic jams a little less painful.

"I've always been an Audi guy," he says. "That was my first car and what I've been driving around since I got here. I looked at the R8, but I'm a tall guy; my head was halfway out of the convertible roof. I looked at the Mercedes sports cars, but I'm pretty happy with my choice."

The gleaming white Maserati that sits in the Kings' training facility is both an affirmation of his hockey greatness and a microcosm of the divide between single dues and married men on every NHL franchise.

When asked which player he wouldn't want behind the wheel of his ride, Kopitar easily replied, "Willie Mitchell. He drives a Prius; I don't think he would have a clue."

Between his easy banter, his prowess on the ice, and the incredible work ethic that quickly shot him up the ranks, this legend in the making proves it's no accident that he's already making history.

For more stories from the Summer 2012 issue of The Fourth Period Magazine, pick up a copy or subscribe today.


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