With the Stanley Cup celebrations in Los Angeles dying down, Kings players are starting to scatter to various places to enjoy their shortened summer and spend time with family and friends. Of course, for Anze Kopitar, that meant a trip to his native Slovenia. Kopitar’s day with the Stanley Cup in Slovenia will take place next week, and recently Kopitar spoke with local reporter Aleš Smrekar for an extensive interview. A huge thank you goes out to blog reader ”QueenInVan,” who made an extraordinary effort to translate the interview and email it, so that I could share it with all of you. Here it is…
Question: Congratulations on having the kind of success that, a few years back, Slovenian hockey fans couldn’t even imagine would have any kind of Slovenian ingredient in the mix…
KOPITAR: ”Thank you very much. Maybe the regular season didn’t look as promising, but things turned around in December and ended in the best possible way.”
Question: Hockey and NHL fans are expecting to see the cup from up close. Can you say what this (celebration) is supposed to look like?
KOPITAR: ”Because this is the biggest trophy in hockey, there are a lot of rules. Not everyone can hoist the Cup –- well, no one that wasn’t part of the winning team, or played a part in winning it. There will be some rules. Me personally, and two gentlemen, the cup keepers, will see to it that these rules are known and that there will be no misunderstandings.”
Question: You said it was a lot heavier than you expected before deservingly lifting it…
KOPITAR: ”To be quite honest, I didn’t know what to expect. In the end, they told me it weighs 16 kilos. It wasn’t as heavy at first, but after you hold it for a while, your hands get tired and start to shake –- but that’s not really a problem with all the pleasure you get from it.”
Question: What does one feel when one looks down on such a huge crowd? What was the view like from the top of that bus (during the parade)?
KOPITAR: ”It was really something special. The Kings are 45 years old, and when you finally win that title, it’s truly special. The fans created a great atmosphere. I think there were close to half a million. It’s a day that I’ll remember for a long time, probably forever. I personally enjoyed it very much, so I really expect to have one more day like that.”
Question: It’s hard to compare two completely different worlds, but was you reception at Brnik (airport) and in your home town of Hrušica more touching than celebrations in the U.S.?
KOPITAR: ”I hope I don’t offend anyone. Even though there were a bit more people in LA.., coming home is always best. It was nice to see the crowd at the airport. Even more people were in Hrušica –- indescribably beautiful. I personally cherished these moments.”
Question: We can’t get by the Cup, which is accompanied by a lot of tradition and rituals. Each team member gets a day with the cup. You’ve had it last Sunday when you were seen with it on the beach of the Pacific Ocean.
KOPITAR: ”That wasn’t my official day with the cup; it was just a (bonus). The Cup had no official duties that day, and I asked, a little naively, if I could borrow it for an hour or two. The keepers agreed, and Ines [his girlfriend] and I took it to the beach, and took pictures with it.”
Question: You talk about the Cup as if it were flesh and blood…
KOPITAR: ”Maybe that’s the most special thing about the Cup. Every player talks about it as if it had lungs and breathed. Some say it’s the hardest trophy to win, so it’s that much more special if you can spend time with (it).”
Question: Your New Year’s resolution was to win the Cup even though your team wasn’t doing that well and your fans weren’t sure you’ll make the playoffs at all. Did you really believe you could do it back then?
KOPITAR: ”I think this is a special quality of our team, because we never stopped believing even when times were hard. We knew we weren’t having the best season. In the end, we had 20 games to go, of which we had to win 14. We knew that if that happens, we had a good chance and the right rhythm for the most important part of the season. That really happened; we were on top of our game, which showed in the playoffs.”
Question: Now you’ve come to realize that, at 24, you’ve made your dream, and the dream of many hockey players that don’t even come close to playing in the NHL, come true…
KOPITAR: ”Looking back, it’s really something special. I have, at least I hope I do, a good 10 years of playing hockey and I really hope for another day like this, when we can enjoy it even more.”
Question: It appears that even after winning the championship, you remained well-grounded. Is that part of your champion’s personality, something else, or does it just seem that way to others?
KOPITAR: ”It’s part of my personality, for sure. Maybe I looked calm on the outside, but it was all happiness on the inside. When the whistle sounded the end of the game, all emotions surfaced and it was pure joy.”
Question: The ‘Kopitar Stanley Cup’ project required a lot of hard work, practice, sacrifice and talent…
KOPITAR: ”You can’t learn talent. But if you take advantage of it, it can take you all the way, and not just in hockey. I was lucky, but it was also a lot of hard work. Now I can say that I’m on top of the world.”
Question: There’s no question about your star status in Hrušica and the rest of Slovenia, but what about L.A.?
KOPITAR: ”You get recognized more, now that we’ve won the Cup. Once the Clippers and Lakers were out of the NBA playoffs, we were the only ones left. Along with the baseball players, but their season was just starting. The Kings were the talk of the town, so we get recognized more than ever before.”
Question: Your father, Matjaž Kopitar, an excellent hockey player and selector of the Slovenian national hockey team, introduced you to skating when you were 3 and a half. Your talent became obvious quickly, but when did you recognize your incredible hockey talent?
KOPITAR: ”It’s hard to single out any given year that you realize things are heading in the right direction. The turning point was the 2005 NHL Draft, when I was a first-round pick. Before that, I knew my hockey career was going well, but once you’re drafted, you realize you’re doing something right, and that you have to build on that. I can maybe single out that day, even though I knew I had a long way to go, but I think everything began then.”
Question: Before you left for Sweden, you still played in Slovenia with the second senior Jesenice team. You played against your father, who played for Maribor. Matjaž said that it was extremely hard for him. Do you remember that game?
KOPITAR: ”I think it was much more difficult for him than it was for me. As a 15-year old, I didn’t realize how uncomfortable he was. It was an interesting situation. I got into a more serious battle, not really a fight, and my father came flying towards me, but pushed the other guy -– his teammate -– away more than he did me. After that, I think we played against each other only once or twice. It’s much easier to play against my brother, and even easier to play with my brother and father.”
Question: Speaking of uncomfortable, your parents say that it was extremely so when you left for Södertälje, Sweden, (at age) 16 to gain some invaluable experience. Was it the same for you?
KOPITAR: ”At 16, you may think that you’re ready, but once the day comes, you find out pretty quickly that you can never be fully ready to take that step. I know it was the best thing to do, if I wanted to play hockey. I had already conquered the Slovenian league by then and needed a new challenge. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. We were at the airport in Celovec (Austria), many tears were shed and many beautiful things were said. The arrival in Sweden was also hard, when you land, you realize you’re all alone and you have to take care of yourself. That made me stronger in the long run. If I were 16 again, I would choose an identical path.”
Question: You quickly became very successful in Sweden and then the draft day came. On June 30th, 2005, you were drafted, which was no surprise. Maybe it was a surprise that you were only the 11th pick, and not higher…
KOPITAR: ”In April, at the (World Championships) in Innsbrueck, I had a meeting with the sports director form Columbus. I was ranked sixth overall, and they had the sixth pick. I personally was convinced that they were going to pick me, and felt terrible when they didn’t. Then you start to doubt. ‘If they didn’t pick me, and they were so sure they were going to, is anyone going to?’ But when L.A. called my name, it was a huge relief.”
Question: To get to the top of the world, an athlete needs some lucky breaks. What would your role be if (another team) picked you?
KOPITAR: ”It’s impossible to say. At that moment, I realized I was L.A.’s first choice, and that was most important to me. I can’t imagine what it would be like anywhere else. L.A. is my second home and can only compare to my, our Hrušica. Maybe the place is a little bigger, but all of my family and I feel great there and that’s the most important thing.”
Question: Your first NHL game was on Oct. 6, 2006, and you scored two goals against Anaheim. Were you surprised at all?
KOPITAR: ”Very. I was quite nervous before the first game. I played well in the first period and felt that I could play well against players like Pronger, Niedermayer or Selanne. Then your confidence rises, and you tell yourself that this is the game you played ever since you were a kid, and that you know how to play it. In the second period, I scored twice. Then you know you belong and you have to play your best game, which is the goal of every athlete. This debut was special by all means.”
Question: In your first interview after this game, you answered in excellent English, which has now, after six years in the States, become real American English. The (language) game you played with your grandmother paid off, or do we reporters blow this out of proportion?
KOPITAR: ”Maybe you do make more out of it then it really was. But it did happen. When I was little I wanted to play hockey someplace other than Slovenia. English is the most common language, so I decided to learn it, since I was going to need it for when I was interviewed. I already had a vision of what I wanted to do, and where. My dream came true. It’s hard to describe how happy I am now. One more time: We won the Stanley cup and we’re the NHL champions, and we’re on top of the world.”
Question: Despite the fact that you barely made the playoffs, you went all the way. How did that happen?
KOPITAR: ”The playoffs are a different season. Once you’re in, it’s a race to four wins. This year we knew that once you’re in, you have every chance to win the championship. We beat the first, second and third seeds in the Western Conference. You have to make it to the Final and the hottest team wins. In the locker room, we believed we could do it.”
Question: The beard is a special part of the playoffs…
KOPITAR: ”Just growing the beard is special. Mine wasn’t as thick, so it wasn’t too itchy. It’s a great feeling to shave it off, and people get to see your normal face the next day.”
Question: Family is very important to you; it is part of the winning formula. Are your family ties getting even stronger?
KOPITAR: ”Yes, it’s one of the most beautiful aspects. The moments after our win, when everybody came out onto the ice and we were hugging, rejoicing and also crying a little, and in the end took pictures with the Cup. Those are the moments you want to spend with your family. They will be with us forever.”
Question: Slovenians like to look at things from the money side of things. In 2008, you signed a seven-year contract worth more than 47 million dollars. Some would say to hang on until 2015, and then you never have to work again. I’m sure you look at things quite differently?
KOPITAR: ”Hockey is my life. My contract ends in four years, and my goal is to play for another good 10 years. This is hockey love, which is hard to understand for some. Even if the sums weren’t as high in the NHL, I would still want to get here and play.”
Question: Given the type of personality you are and that you are surrounded by family, I’m sure you invest the money wisely.
KOPITAR: ”I have a manager that makes sure all my taxes are paid and the like. Of course, I have a say in the matter, but I know she does a great job. I trust her and she has proven that she is the right choice time and again.”
Question: Charity and professional sports go hand in hand. Not just because you have the financial means, but also because you see and hear many things…
KOPITAR: ”There are many sad stories that come to the players’ attention. That’s how we decide what groups to help and how to do it. These may be children in need, cancer patients, or families that can’t afford vacation or school supplies for their kids. There are many opportunities for charity work, and I personally chose to do it through a golf tournament. Some teammates decide on the amount (of money) and multiply it by the goals they score. We are all very proud to be able to help out.
Question: You mentioned that golf lets you get away from hockey for a while. Do you play a lot?
KOPITAR: ”Maybe too much, they’re starting to be upset with me at home. I relax when I’m surrounded by nature. All I see around me are trees and green. I’m a very intense golfer. If things don’t go my way, it might not be so relaxing! Throughout the season, I’m always indoors — the rink, the locker room, resting at home — so getting some fresh air is one of the best things for me.”
Question: Are you one of the better golfers among hockey players?
KOPITAR: ”Not yet. I hope I will be one of the best someday.”
Question: How is your summer going to look? Your father, Matjaž, can’t wait for you to start practicing like your brother Gašper…
KOPITAR: ”Gašper has been practicing for some time now, since his season ended sooner than mine. He practiced in L.A. during the playoffs. I still get some time off, but I’ll soon be heading to the fitness room and start running.”
Question: But you’ll get to go away for a day or two with Ines?
KOPITAR: ”That would be nice, hopefully I can get a long weekend. There will certainly be negotiations at home.”