LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - ‘Slovenian synchronicity’ describes the near-perfect scenario for center Anze Kopitar as he prepares for his country’s ice hockey debut at next year’s Winter Olympics with a huge dose of family pride.
Not only will National Hockey League (NHL) player Kopitar be spearheading his nation’s bid for ice hockey glory in global sport’s showpiece but he will do so with his father, Matjaz Kopitar, calling the shots as Slovenia’s national team coach.
There is an outside chance that Anze’s younger brother, 21-year-old Gasper, could also be in the 25-man squad for the February 7-23 Sochi Games, which would lift the whole notion of ‘family fortunes’ to heady heights for the Kopitar clan.
“That would be a cherry on top of the cream for sure,” Kopitar, 26, grinned as he spoke to Reuters at the Los Angeles Kings’ training facility in El Segundo after the NHL team had completed a practice session on the ice.
”Gasper’s in the bigger picture (for Olympic selection). I don’t know if he’s going to make it or not but we will see. If he does make it, that’s a whole lot better. With my father coaching the team, that will make it pretty sweet for sure.
“It’s going to be exciting, and maybe even more so when we are all done playing and you are looking back over your best hockey moments and your whole career.”
The mere fact that Slovenia have qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics is impressive enough.
The European nation has a population of only two million, with only 148 registered senior players, yet Slovenia upset more fancied Belarus and Denmark in a four-team qualifying tournament in February to book a spot in Sochi.
”It is very, very exciting,“ smiled Kopitar, who was unable to represent his country in those qualifiers because of his NHL commitments with the Kings. ”For the very first time, we have qualified for the Olympics.
”The guys did a tremendous job in qualifying, beating out some very good teams. Our national team can only choose from maybe about 30 guys compared to some other hockey nations, they’ve got a lot more guys to choose from.
“It’s pretty remarkable what we’ve accomplished,” he said of a nation ranked 18th by the world ice hockey federation. In Sochi, Slovenia will be ranked 12th in the 12-team field.
Kopitar, who became the first Slovenian to play in the NHL in 2006, has already compiled a glittering career resume that includes All-Star team appearances in 2008 and 2011, and a Stanley Cup triumph with the Kings in 2012.
Asked how Slovenia’s first qualification for the Olympic ice hockey tournament compared with those achievements, he replied: ”It’s up there. For me, it’s tough to compare because I wasn’t on the team that qualified in February.
“But just the fact that we made it and the huge stage we are going to be on in Sochi, it’s going to be one hell of a feeling for sure - a career moment.”
Kopitar, a dynamic offensive talent who led the Kings in scoring for five consecutive seasons from 2007-08, knows Slovenia will face a daunting task in Sochi where their group also includes powerhouse hosts Russia, 2010 Olympic silver medalists the United States and Slovakia.
“We are going to go there and compete and play to our potential, and try to surprise some guys,” said Kopitar. “We are there for a reason. We have beaten some good teams and I think we are going to have a decent squad.”
Asked to outline his realistic hopes for Slovenia in Sochi, he replied: ”Our biggest goal is just to go there and perform, show that we can play hockey. We certainly want to win some games.
“If that’s going to happen, that’s even better but we are getting there to compete, play hockey and show, in the end, that we are a good hockey country.”
Although the Sochi Games are less than two months away, Kopitar has plenty to occupy him before then on the NHL front with the in-form Kings riding high in the Western Conference after winning nine of their last 10 games.
”It’s easy to forget about Sochi at the moment,“ he said of the (25-8-4) Kings, who sit third in the 14-team standings. ”Sochi is still a little ways away so you definitely want to stay in the present.
“We have been playing some pretty good hockey and we’re going to have to continue to do that just to keep pace. When the time comes for the Olympic Games, then that’s going to be fun.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles,; Editing by Larry Fine