Despite a population of just 2.06 million, the country of Slovenia has made an impressive per-capita mark on the world’s sports stage. At the London Olympics last summer, Slovenia’s four medals – gold in judo, silver in the hammer throw, and bronze in shooting and rowing – represented the sixth-best per capita tally at the 2010 Games amongst the 85 countries that earned a medal. The national soccer team qualified for the 2010 World Cup and took a 2-0 lead on the United States before the Americans rallied for a 2-2 tie; they narrowly missed the knockout round when Landon Donovan scored in the 91st minute against Algeria in the final group stage game to lift the U.S. Goran Dragić and Beno Udrih are currently on NBA rosters – Udrih was a part of two San Antonio Spurs championships – while Radoslav Nesterović and Sasha Vujačić combined for three NBA titles.
And then there is Anze Kopitar, who will be participating in his first Olympic Games, courtesy of Slovenia’s upsets of higher-ranked Belarus and host Denmark in Olympic qualifying earlier this week. The “Lynx” will be placed in Group A with the United States, Russia and Slovakia.
Kopitar, who joked “I’ve got to make the team first,” spoke on Saturday of the significance of the country’s first men’s ice hockey Olympic qualification, while coach Darryl Sutter and soon-to-be-Olympic-foe Dustin Brown shared their thoughts as well.
Anze Kopitar, on whether he was able to watch the clinching game online:
“There was a live stream. I just didn’t want to watch it, because usually if I watch it, I’m too nervous, or something not good is happening. I just stayed away from it and then told my mom – she was watching it – and I told her, ‘when it’s all said and done, just shoot me a text, either ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.’ That was pretty much it.”
Kopitar, on his reaction when he got the “yes”:
“I was really excited…It’s something you really dream of when you’re a professional athlete to be a part of that thing. Again, it’s a long ways a way. But it’s definitely exciting.”
Kopitar, on speaking with his brother Gašper, who appeared in both wins, and his father, Matjaž, who coaches the team:
“I’ve talked to [Gašper] briefly, and I’ve talked to my dad, too. But they were probably too excited. They didn’t really tell me a whole lot of stuff. I’ll give them a call again today, and I’m sure it’s going to sink in a little more for them, and they’ll be able to talk a little more. “
Kopitar, on whether he watched Slovenia in the 2010 World Cup in soccer:
“Yeah, that I did. That I have no nerves watching. We were holding on pretty good, and then they just beat us in the last minutes.”
Kopitar, on whether this was among the biggest stories in Slovenian sports history:
“I don’t know about sports history. We’ve had a couple of teams making the Olympics, too, and a couple of Olympians that got the gold medal, too. I don’t know about the ‘greatest’, but I think hockey-related, it’s definitely the greatest [story] in…country history, really.”
Dustin Brown, on the significance of Slovenia’s qualification:
“For them, considering their hockey pool, it’s pretty amazing. I think they made the World Championships in one of the years I played. I’ve actually played a couple of exhibition games against them in Slovenia. It’ll be interesting.”
Brown, on whether the Olympics are on the back of his mind at all:
“Quite honestly, I haven’t thought about the Olympics since I left the Olympics. I’m just focusing on day-to-day here. I think…you start thinking about it more at the beginning of next year, really.”
Brown, on the Olympics being a year away:
“I hardly think a week away. Like I said, when the time comes, then you start thinking about it maybe a bit more.”
Darryl Sutter, on developing hockey countries:
“I don’t know about the Olympic stage, but [at] the World Junior stage, to see those countries that normally don’t [qualify], and to be there underground and watch it, it’s good for them to go to that stage because they don’t have what our countries have in terms of hockey resources. Equipment – I’ve seen it at World Juniors so many times, those teams like Belarus and that, they were getting our team’s used stuff. They couldn’t wait to play Canada or the U.S. because they could use some of ours. Hey, that’s what supports them, right? Quite honest. It’s the international stage. Very simple. If they want NHL teams or NHL players in the Olympics, then obviously for a team or a country like Kopi’s, it’s pretty awesome when you think about it.”