The first Slovenian in league history is also one of the best players in the game—not that he'd ever say so. Anze Kopitar is a perfect fit on a team built to dominate: He's quiet, confident and concerned only about winning the Stanley Cup
LUC ROBITAILLE, the Kings' president of business operations, sits in the press box at Staples Center watching L.A.'s first preseason game, a Sept. 22 split-squad matchup with the Coyotes. There's a new lighting system in place this year, and the ice gives off a halogen glow. The modest crowd of 12,989 is reacquainting itself with the rhythms and noises of hockey, and there's a space in the rafters where, on Oct. 8, the club will unveil its second Stanley Cup banner in three years.
Early in the second period Kings center Anze Kopitar knocks down a breakout pass at the Arizona blue line and shuttles the puck to linemate Marian Gaborik, who is alone in the slot. Gaborik, after some leisurely deking, snaps the puck into the back of the net.
"I think he's going to have fun this year playing with him," says a beaming Robitaille, who knows a thing or two about center-winger relationships, having spent a large chunk of his Hall of Fame career playing to the left of Wayne Gretzky in L.A.
Robitaille could be talking about the way Kopitar will appreciate Gaborik's finishing abilities over a full season—Kopitar assisted on nine of the postseason-high 14 goals that Gaborik, who came to the Kings in a trade-deadline deal last March, scored last spring—but that isn't it. Robitaille is referring to Kopitar's all-around game and the way it makes life easier on his teammates.
Before Game 1 of last season's Stanley Cup finals, Gretzky made headlines (and many of the same points as Robitaille) when he proclaimed Kopitar hockey's third-best player, behind only the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and the Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews. "[Kopitar] plays defensively, he takes all the key face-offs, he can get the big goal and make big plays offensively," said Gretzky.
L.A., having just outlasted Toews and Chicago in a scintillating seven-game Western Conference finals, went on to dispatch the Rangers in five games to win the Cup. Kopitar led all players in the postseason, with 26 points. Being anointed by the Great One did not suddenly make the 27-year-old Kopitar—who is 6'3" and 235 pounds, has soft hands and preternatural vision through his tinted visor, and is seemingly always in precisely the right place—one of the league's best players. He was already there. But for a variety of reasons, namely where he's from, where he plays and the way he and the Kings play, it has taken the world a little longer to catch on.
"Anze is exactly the way our team is," says Robitaille. "He never takes a shortcut."
THERE ARE no shortcuts between Anze Kopitar's hometown and the NHL. In fact, there was no path at all until Kopitar came along. He was born in the industrial town of Jesenice, in what was then Yugoslavia but would soon become independent Slovenia. His father, Matjaz, was a forward on the local professional hockey team, HK Acroni Jesenice. Later he would play a few seasons in Austria, where he got into coaching.
Now that Anze has reached the NHL, and now that he and his father have led the Slovenian men's hockey team on an improbable run to the quarterfinals in the Sochi Olympics—with Anze an alternate captain and Matjaz the coach—the story of his childhood has the ring of a bizarre hockey fairy tale. The family was extremely tight. Matjaz and his wife, Mateja, owned a restaurant, where Anze and his younger brother, Gasper, sometimes helped out. Anze hung around his father's locker rooms when he was a kid, even as Matjaz traveled internationally, first as a player and then as a coach. When Anze was young, Matjaz built him a rink in the backyard.
"The first time, when he stepped on the ice, we knew—at least we expected—that he was going to be something special," Matjaz says.
The word special is one Matjaz uses often when talking about his son. Anze absorbed his father's lessons—including how to read the action on the ice—and quickly outgrew hockey in Slovenia, where even now there are only about 150 registered men's players. But he says that North America was still not on his radar. "Once I turned about 14, 15, I really felt like I could at least put my name out there, maybe to have a nice career in one of the top European leagues," he says. "I didn't really think about the NHL or anything."
When he was 16, Kopitar moved out of his parents' house to join a club in Sweden. It was a family decision, but it was driven by Kopitar's own motivation to see how far hockey could take him. "I can say that the first month after he left the house, I think that was probably the worst time in my life," says Matjaz. Less than a year later the Kings selected Kopitar with the 11th pick in the 2005 NHL draft.
"We had him actually No. 3 on our list," says former Los Angeles general manager Dave Taylor (who notes that the first two players were Crosby, who was drafted first, and Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson, who went third). Taylor and his staff nevertheless believed there was a good chance that Kopitar could drop to them. Taylor thinks that, although Kopitar had been playing junior hockey in Sweden, teams were reticent about picking a player from Slovenia, a tiny country with no hockey infrastructure or history of sending players to the NHL; Kopitar is the first Slovenian to play in the league. "We were nervous about it too," Taylor says.
But Kopitar awed L.A.'s scouts and won Taylor over in what he calls the most impressive predraft interview in his career as an executive. "[Kopitar] just seemed like he really knew what he wanted to be; his focus was on being an athlete and being a hockey player," says Taylor. "Even after we drafted him, he had firmly in his mind that he needed one more year in Sweden, and then he would be ready to come over to the NHL. And that's exactly what he did."
THE KINGS' roster has been intricately assembled for long-term dominance, with a core of young players signed to team-friendly contracts. Since Los Angeles first raised the Stanley Cup, in 2012, the team has had very little player turnover (sidebar, p. 56). Over the summer the Kings lost only one key member of last year's team, defenseman Willie Mitchell. The careful architecture of the roster shines through on the ice—L.A. is a systematic force—and reflects the Kings as a disciplined, hierarchical organization.
The team is run like a corporate division by Dean Lombardi. The GM—who graduated third in his class at the University of New Haven in 1982 and earned a law degree from Tulane in '85—took over the club in April 2006, inheriting Kopitar, winger Dustin Brown and goalie Jonathan Quick from the Taylor regime and supervising their development into franchise cornerstones. It was Lombardi who drafted precocious defenseman Drew Doughty in '08 and who, over the next five years, dealt for forwards Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Justin Williams and defensemen Matt Greene and Robyn Regehr. More important, it was Lombardi who determined that L.A.'s identity would be that of a physical, aggressive, puck-controlling team.
The changes began in the first training camp of the Lombardi era, Kopitar's rookie year, with the team having missed the playoffs three years in a row. Hall of Fame defenseman Rob Blake, who had been traded away to the Avalanche in February 2001 after more than 10 years with the Kings, was brought back to L.A. to help institute a culture change in the locker room. "We weren't very good—we had a lot of different pieces we were missing," Blake says now. "But [Lombardi] used to say, This is what I want, this is how I want my team built."
Kopitar was a perfect model of what Lombardi wanted his team to be—he was big and strong, but he was also skilled enough to do something with the puck once he gained possession. Possession was and remains a big part of Kopitar's offensive game. "What sets him apart is that he's big and he can skate and he can protect the puck from anyone," says Williams. "If you try to get it and he doesn't want you to get it, you're not going to."
"A lot of young players with that type of ability, you can see their offensive skill and things, but [Anze] already knew how to play both ends of the rink, and it was a clinic," says Lombardi. "He wasn't always in the greatest shape [back then], but as he matured as a pro, that continued to improve."
Kopitar scored 20 goals and assisted on 41 others in 72 games as a rookie in 2006--07, and he finished fourth in the voting for the Calder Trophy. Blake remembers quickly recognizing that he needed to treat Kopitar the same way he had treated such stars as Gretzky, Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic. "Kopi was only 20 years old at the time, but whenever I had a shift with him, I wanted to make sure [that] sometime during that shift I got him the puck, because then something good [was] going to happen."
Off the ice Kopitar was constantly asking Blake—who had won a Stanley Cup in Colorado—about Sakic, a former Hart Trophy winner and one of the best two-way centers of his day: how Sakic did this or that, how he carried himself in the locker room or at a team dinner. Kopitar was always listening, too. Not eavesdropping or anything, Blake says, just picking up stray bits of conversations among veterans. "You could tell right away that there was something a little different with him."
WHEN I first got here, there wasn't much of a winning attitude, and we've definitely turned that around," says Kopitar, who didn't play in the postseason until his fourth year in the league. "It's not that we accepted losing my first couple of years. It's just things weren't clicking between us, and maybe the room was not as close as it is now. That makes a ton of difference on the ice."
The Kings all talk the same way. They speak as little about themselves as possible, deflecting constantly to the team or to the sacred "room" that Kopitar mentions. Of course this kind of thing isn't rare in sports. But Los Angeles takes it a step further—the players bring the room home with them, almost all living within a few miles of one another in L.A.'s South Bay beach communities.
The bond between teammates is evident on the ice, where the Kings' playing style can best be described as collective improvement by self-sacrifice. Richards, a former Flyers captain, often centered the fourth line during last year's run to the Cup. While the organization might be run in a hierarchical way, with Lombardi calling the shots, the dressing room is not. Leadership extends beyond Brown, who wears the c, and superstars like Kopitar and Doughty. "As a player you always want to grow your role, succeed, be getting more responsibility," says Regehr. "But sometimes that doesn't happen, and players are able to accept that here and do what they're supposed to, and do it well, and be part of something that's even more important—and that's a successful championship team."
For Kopitar that meant rethinking his game. He recalls a meeting with Lombardi a few years ago at which the GM simply told him, "You want to be a winner, you want to be known as a winner." Kopitar took that to mean he should improve his 200-foot game. "It maybe takes a few points away individually," he says matter-of-factly, "but I think I can be very proud of the two Stanley Cups that we won here."
Drew Doughty puts it more bluntly: "Unlike most forwards—who all they care about is scoring the goals and racking up points and cheating for offense—Kopi takes the defensive side of the game very serious."
Kopitar may be sacrificing goals and assists, but according to advanced metrics like Corsi and Fenwick, which measure puck possession and shots on goal in even-strength situations, he is still one of the league's top statistical players. Whether it's because of his defense or his offense, when Kopitar is on the ice, Los Angeles is dominant.
One way Kopitar controls play is by making full use of his size. He is able to body up opponents, clear out corners and strip pucks away from opposing forwards. But Kings color commentator Jim Fox says that it's actually on offense that Kopitar's size makes the biggest difference—that his physicality with the puck, his ability to throw his body around to protect the puck from defenders, is a "microcosm of the Kings' possession game."
Blake, on the other hand, points to Kopitar's reach, spreading his arms out to indicate how impossible such a distance is for a defenseman to cover. Indeed, one of Kopitar's favorite moves on the odd-man rush is to skate the puck in hard toward a post, drawing the goalie in that direction, only to, at the last second, reach out beyond the goaltender with one hand on his stick, all the way across the crease, and poke the puck into the wide-open net.
Kopitar, meanwhile, speaks about his talent as though it were a family inheritance that he was lucky to have been born into and is now responsible for managing. He does not like the idea of letting any of his natural abilities go to waste, particularly his preternatural vision on the ice. "I've always had the privilege and the talent to read the play fairly well, and that's what it is really," he says. "You have to use all the skills you have—and that's one of my better skills."
HOCKEY IS more popular than ever in Southern California—more popular than it was even in the Gretzky era—and so are the Kings. Winning goes a long way. Hockey in L.A. may never be what it is in Detroit, but hockey in Jesenice may never be what it is in Helsinki, either. Meanwhile, the Kings have a superstar who is suited to their system: who both embodies the team's style of play and willingly subsumes himself in it.
"There's a lot of Tim Duncan [in Anze]," says Lombardi. "Just a real class-winner-team guy.... and because they win [championships], they don't take a backseat to anybody."
The exhibition opener against the Coyotes, meaningless as it is, goes to overtime and then a shootout with the score tied 3--3. Staples Center is far from full, but the speakers are cranked up all the way and the crowd rises to its feet. Kopitar skates out to take the first turn for the Kings. He looks up at the ceiling, breathes deep, twirls his stick. He glides across the ice right up to Arizona goalie Devan Dubnyk, fakes once and stares straight at him as he casually slips the puck between Dubnyk's legs and into the net.
The Complete Kopitar
1 TWO-WAY TITANS
Effective on offense and defense, Doughty (8) and Kopitar have won two Cups.
2 POINTS TAKEN
Kopitar led the playoffs in scoring last spring, with five goals and 21 assists.
3 HIT KING
Kopitar (in white)makes full use of his 6'3", 235-pound frame.
Photograph by Robert Beck Sports Illustrated
BILL SMITH/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (1)
STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES (2)
BRAD REMPEL/ICON SPORTSWIRE (3)
NOAH GRAHAM/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES
BODY GUARD The best facet of Kopitar's game is his ability to protect the puck. "If he doesn't want you to get it," says Williams, "you're not going to."