Kings players used a lot of different words when asked to talk about forward Anze Kopitar, who played in his 1,297th career regular-season game with the organization last night, setting a new franchise record.
Captain. Idol. Icon. Does Everything Well.
And that’s just what Kevin Fiala had to say.
“There’s so much to say, he’s our captain, he’s been here for a long time, so many games, he’s just an idol for everybody, you can look up to him and there’s nothing bad about him,” Fiala said. “You can say so many positive things. He’s such an idol, such an icon, he does everything well, small details, comes to the rink every day and works hard.”
Fiala was far from the only teammate and coach with something to say about Kopitar, however. Plenty of positives and plenty of accolades have been thrown the captain’s way over the last couple of days, as Kopitar’s accomplishment came to light last night against Boston. Though the end result against the Bruins wasn’t what he or the team had hoped for, it did little to dampen a moment that goes beyond one game or one season.
Kopitar’s accomplishment is one of legacy. It’s one of loyalty. It’s one of longevity. You don’t play nearly 1,300 games with a single franchise without a combination of those three words, and many more.
“Throughout all of his games, since I’ve been here, his presence, his commitment to both sides of the puck, he’s a mentor or a role model for just about every young player coming up,” Head Coach Todd McLellan said of Kopitar. “Whether you’re a forward, a d-man or a goaltender, we’ve been very, very fortunate to have him and, knock on wood, he’s not showing any signs of slowing down, so we have a real good player for a long time yet.”
The word mentor is such an accurate one because no matter how long a teammate has been alongside Kopitar, there’s been an impression made.
For Adrian Kempe, it’s been longer than most. Kempe and Kopitar have been teammates since Kempe entered the league during the 2016-17 season. Kopitar has not only watched Kempe grow from a young player cutting his teeth into a 40-goal scorer who plays on his wing, but he’s helped him along the way, dating back even further than Kempe’s NHL debut. Though the Swede is now an established, high-level player himself, he was quick to direct a lot of the credit Kopitar’s way for help along the way.
“He’s always been super nice, super welcoming when I came here, even when I wasn’t playing on the Kings at the time, every time I saw him, he was chatting me up and you could really tell why he’s the captain and why he has meant so much to this organization,” Kempe said. “The presence he has on the ice, but also off the ice, whether it’s talking to teammates, talking to family of teammates, all that kind of stuff. It’s pretty amazing to see the impact he’s had on the Kings and on myself.”
For the third member of that line, Quinton Byfield, he’s still finding his way in the NHL.
Byfield is skating alongside Kopitar and Kempe as a 21-year-old, playing top-line minutes, but he’s still growing and developing, playing in what is expected to be his first, full NHL season. Kopitar has lived similar expectations himself, as a first-round pick back in 2006, and Byfield is one of several young players who the Slovenian centerman has made an impression on.
“What he’s meant to this organization, it’s just crazy, and what he’s meant to me as a teammate as well, coming in as younger guy, he’s been a leader,” Byfield said. “He’s probably the best King ever, so just getting to play with him, as a teammate and as a linemate now, it’s really special. To get guidance from him, is something you just can’t ask for more of.”
Heck, it’s not even just the drafted players who have come through the system that Kopitar has impacted. Even Phillip Danault, an alternate captain with the Kings, feels Kopitar’s impact. Though Danault is now 30-years-old, and is an established Selke Trophy contender, he still see the standard that Kopitar sets for the organization. It’s a standard that pushes him to be better, day in and day out.
“He’s our captain, he’s been a legend since he came into the league, I feel like he’s been here forever and he’s still producing,” Danault said. “His two-way game is exceptional and it’s a great, great model, I couldn’t ask for a better model to learn from as a player.”
Even as a veteran, Danault said he’s still learning from Kopitar on a day-to-day basis.
The example that the captain sets for his teammates is what creates a standard of play. When even your fellow veterans are buying into that standard, which Danault has not only embraced but pushed, it says a lot about a player like Kopitar.
“I thought I was doing all of those things, but he’s always on another level,” Danault added. “He cares so much, he’s always on the ice working on the little things. No matter what age he is, he still thinks he can get better and that’s very inspiring and I’m very happy to be behind him and learn from him.”
In terms of that on-ice example, McLellan admits he’s been using Kopitar as a teaching model long before he joined the Kings organization.
He noted that he would show Kopitar clips in his past stops to his players as a model for the right way to do things in just about every situation. Now that he has coached Kopitar going on five seasons, his level of admiration has only grown.
It’s not as if Kopitar is perfect, because who is. When he does make a mistake, though, it doesn’t happen twice. That stems from his understanding of the overall picture.
“I think that he really understands the whole picture, from beginning to end and everything in between,” McLellan said. “He knows moments, he understands it and it doesn’t mean he doesn’t make mistakes, but he plays the right way, minute in and minute out, and understands the whole big picture.”
The other side of Kopitar’s game that McLellan has gained an appreciation for is the work he puts in off the ice, which you really can’t fully understand until you see how a player operates on a daily basis.
Kopitar’s on-ice performance sets the example, as a player who never cheats the game, but Kopitar doesn’t cheat the game off the ice either. He commits to each day in the right way, which sets the example and the standard for those around him. He also embraces the side of being a leader that you can’t measure, whether it be a reassuring conversation with a younger player after a touch coaching moment, a dinner on the road or something as simple as driving Alex Laferriere into home games to make him more comfortable.
“When you talk about the off-ice part, there’s a lot of variables that go into it, that is just watching him,” McLellan said. “Watching him be a dad with his kids, that type of stuff is valuable. Watching him preparing for a day’s work, what he does in the gym, what he does with his equipment, his rhythm and routine, that’s real important. Then, you can talk about the ‘hey, come and sit with me or let’s go for dinner, or coach may be mad at a young player, hey, don’t worry about it, I’ve been there before’ moments. There’s a lot that goes into the off-ice part that you can’t bottle up in one comment, it’s really big.”
McLellan know where Kopitar’s full package will ultimately wind up going – the rafters at Crypto.com Arena and the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
You don’t get those honors without elite, on-ice play and Kopitar has delivered that from his first goal in Anaheim to last night’s game against Boston. It’s always been about more than that, though, and McLellan knows it.
With the time he’s now spent working directly with Koptiar, the Kings’ bench boss has a full appreciation for the player and person that he is. One of the greatest to wear a Kings jersey, or an NHL jersey of any kind, throughout his impressive career.
“I know this for sure, his number is probably going to go in the rafters next to Brownies, Blakey’s and Luc’s and his picture’s probably going to be on a wall in Toronto, at least I believe that,” McLellan said. ‘That’s a pretty simple answer for what he’s meant to the organization, throughout all of his games.”