There are plenty of career milestones Anze Kopitar will be able to fondly look back on – when the time comes for nostalgia. But there’s plenty of mileage left on his body, even as he plays his 1,000th NHL game tonight against the Calgary Flames. No existential introspection has yet taken place – apart from a family conversation Sunday night.
“I’ve been just blessed to be able to do this,” he said. “Even talking to my mom last night, it was like, ‘who would’ve thought you would’ve made it to 1,000 games? Who would’ve thought you’d have made it to the NHL at first?’”And so Kopitar, the first Slovenian to play in the NHL, will reach a league milestone alongside Dustin Brown, who on Thursday passed Dave Taylor to be the LA Kings’ all-time games played leader, and Jonathan Quick, who on the same night became the 51st goalie in league history to appear in 600 games. Brown will be honored in a ceremony tonight; Kopitar on Saturday night in advance of the season finale.
It’s serendipitous, it’s surreal, it’s hard to put into words, given that the Kings’ ascendance to league champions took place in 2012 when Kopitar was 25, Quick 26 and Brown 27. And most of the aforementioned players would prefer to keep it unstated, given the challenge of professional athletes to reminisce about ongoing accomplishments and bodies of work they’re yet to wrap up.
“I think we have a group of guys that for the past decade or so, I think we’ve tried to enjoy the moment, live in the moment, play in the moment and things like that,” said Quick, another member of Los Angeles’ 2005 draft class. “That kind of stems from some of the leadership coming from Kopi there, among other guys, but for sure he has a hand in that.”
And while this core group has often taken upon an unspoken, seething resolve during the best of times, the selfless, team-first camaraderie in which its leaders are also its hardest workers, penalty killers and promoters of culture is represented well in the makeups of both Brown and Kopitar, the last two players to serve as team captain.
These ceremonies represent a passing of time that has allowed greater definition of the legacies they’ll leave as players. That will always remain as the first (and to this point only) players to have won Stanley Cups with the team, never mind the challenges they’ve faced this season as the team recalibrates its focus during the back nine of these players’ storied careers.
Anze Kopitar is a two-time Stanley Cup winner, a two-time Selke Trophy winner, a Lady Byng Trophy winner, an Olympian, team captain and, should he accrue another 423 points with the team, the leading scorer in team history. Brown is the first player to lift the Cup as a King, Quick a Conn Smythe Trophy winner. It is easy to predict they’ll be the last Kings to wear 11, 23 and 32, and that this week won’t be the final time any will be honored in a pre-game ceremony.All three are also those who lead by example, though Quick is generally the most expressive on the ice. Kopitar and Brown are the “quiet leaders” who govern largely by example, and all three are mature veterans who became fathers in their mid-20’s.
“I know when I got here, Brownie already had his first son, but over the past decade I watched his family grow and then same with Kopi,” Quick said. “He has a couple kids now and to see that side of it off the ice it’s pretty special. And then you go to the rink and see the time and work they put into their job and how much it means to them, so I know when I’m on and off the ice it just makes you kind of work a little harder. You want to win for them and that’s the way it should be.”
For Kopitar, the family connection helps define him as a player. He played for his father, Matjaz, at the Olympics in 2014, two years after he suited up alongside his brother for Mora IK in Sweden’s Allsvenskan during the lockout. When Gasper Kopitar scored his first professional goal off a rebound created by his brother, “I think I was probably happier than him,” Anze said. Both played for the Slovenian national team under Matjaz during international breaks in the 2012-13 season.
Kopitar acknowledged that reaching 1,000 games is indeed surreal and will take more time to sink in, “But at the same time, it’s a really cool feeling, obviously, and it makes it a lot more special doing it with one team. Obviously I’m very fortunate to be here and stick here for an extended period of time. There’s not a place I’d rather be.”
It’s part of a major stroke of fortune that he even ended up in Los Angeles. Kopitar acknowledged Monday that he expected to be drafted by Columbus in 2005, only to see Vancouver Giants forward Gilbert Brule selected in that spot. The Blue Jackets had communicated repeatedly to Kopitar that they were extremely interested in him, and as the top-ranked European skater, he wasn’t expecting to fall below the sixth overall pick.
Doug MacLean, then Columbus’ general manager, acknowledged selecting Brule, who played 299 NHL games, was “a decision I’ll live to regret for along time.”
Held at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa in July shortly after the conclusion of the 2004-05 lockout, Kopitar did not attend the draft, but rather followed along from Sweden, where he was playing for Sodertalje. Because of the time difference – Stockholm is six hours ahead of Ottawa – Kopitar waited longer into the night to hear his name called than he’d expected.
“It worked out for me,” he said.
He’s now the first player from the 2005 NHL Draft to reach 1,000 games played, a testament to his durability and ability to play through strains inherent in such longevity.
“He’s kind of built for what he does,” Quick said. “He could play 30 minutes as a center and his last shift of the game he won’t look tired. I think he has the perfect build for being a number one center, right? He skates so smooth and he weighs at least, what, 220 pounds and he just makes it look easy. So, it’s very impressive that he’s able to do what he does at his size. It’s very impressive.”
And in yet another reminder of the passing of time and the maturation of legends who’ve accounted for some of the most emotional moments in organizational history – both good and bad – Patrick Kane, selected first overall in 2007, will play his 900th game tonight since beginning his NHL career one year after Kopitar.
“Tough to play against, good two-way player and he hangs onto the puck. Responsible in his own end,” Kane said of his Western Conference rival whose team success overlapped with the Blackhawks’. “He’s been a good player for a long time, the reason they won a couple Cups, so it’s impressive that he got to 1,000 that quickly. It seems like as he goes, that team goes, and you saw that last year with the amazing year he had. A special player, and a tough player to play against, too.”
Given that Kopitar was a 92-point player a year ago and Kane ranks third in the NHL with 105 points this season, the twilight of key performers from springtimes of yore is still a ways off.
“Being a kid from Slovenia, you always dream about to play in the NHL and to actually play 1,000 games, it’s pretty special,” he said. “It’s something that’s maybe, or most definitely, going to need a little bit of time to sink in and really kind of understand what it means to me, but obviously very honored to be a part of the LA Kings organization for all of my games and I’m very blessed to be in this position and to be a part of this team.”
Anze Kopitar, on the base of his defensive ability:
As a hockey player I think each and every day you’re trying to get better and for me, I think it was it definitely came along the way. I don’t think there’s one guy that could take credit coming into the league. Obviously there’s development staff throughout the years and all the coaches, [iaudible], my dad. Everybody around me I got to give credit to just because they’ve worked with me, they’ve talked to me, they’ve showed me. My teammates — former, current — you know, you learn from everybody. I think I’ve always been a good listener and open to a change, opemn to suggestions, and at the end of the day, I guess it’s on me to put all of it together, so I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that, but credit goes to everybody, really. You can’t pinpoint just the one guy, but it’s being open to suggestions and willing to listen and learn at the end of the day, and once all the information is there, just putting it together.
Kopitar, on family joining him at games:
I haven’t done what Brownie’s done, but just having my little ones in pre-game warm-ups and they’re banging on the glass and trying to wink and wave and all that, that’s pretty cool. I guess during the ceremony, if they get to stand at center ice, that’s going to be very cool for them, and for me, of course.”
Kopitar, on whether he could see himself playing as long as Matt Cullen or Patrick Marleau:
I sure hope so. I mean at the end of the day, once you get up there in age, I think a big factor is if the body holds up and all of that. I’ve been pretty fortunate … so I’m going to go as long as I can, really. Hockey is something that I absolutely love and don’t see myself doing anything else but playing hockey, so I’m going to go for as long as I can.
Kopitar, on accomplishments that stick out in his career:
Well, there’s two, obviously. There’s June 11th and June 13th – 12 and 14, obviously. I mean there’s a few – playing my first NHL game, scoring my first NHL goal. There’s a few. It’s kind of tough to list it, but the best two are definitely the days or the nights that we won.
Jonathan Quick, on what Anze Kopitar means to the franchise:
He’s been a lead scorer pretty much every year for the past decade and he just brings such a calm presence to the locker room and to the ice when you get in those situations, especially high-pressure situations where you’re trying to win games to get into the playoffs or win playoffs games. He’s just so consistent and calm and just does his job and just knows how to get the job done. I guess that’s the best thing to say about him. But I think the best part off the ice is how great of a guy he is and tries to take care of everybody and wants to win for his teammates and I think that’s all commitment. Sums up who he is.
Quick, on his earliest impressions of Kopitar:
I don’t know – it was a long time ago. But I certainly do know getting called up my first time and being in the locker room with him. Obviously, he was a young guy at that point, too. But still, even though he was young, you watched him play and you watched him how he handled himself, that was very impressive. I remembered thinking that and there was a reason he was drafted as high as he was and how he was having success at a young age.
Quick, on being a part of Dustin Brown’s milestone:
Something like that, that’s remarkable. And I’ve said it when he hit 1,000 games and a bunch of the milestones he’s hit along the way here, but every time I get a new view what amazes me is the way he plays the game and to have the ability to reach these milestones as quickly as he has and be able to have the longevity in his career that he’s had. Obviously he doesn’t look like he’s stopping anytime soon, so that’s a good thing. It’s impressive and being able to go out to dinner with his family the night before and, obviously we all know Nicole and the kids, just kind of spend that night before the Vancouver game with him and his family is pretty special.
–Lead photo via Scott Audette/NHLI