It’s easy for some to watch the above video clip and begin wondering if there’s another Slovenian Sniper on his way up through the LA Kings system. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
First off, Gasper Kopitar is signed to an ECHL-only deal with the Ontario Reign, so he’s not even Kings property. Further, he’s out to carve his own niche, not become another points machine like his older brother.
“Anze and I are totally different players,” Gasper said after his home debut with the Reign on Sunday. “He’s more offensive. I don’t have that many numbers. So I just try to focus on my game and what I can do, and not to over think the game and do something that I’m not capable of. I’m just trying to play my game.”
Big brother Anze is also quick to shut down any comparisons.
“It’s very unfair to him. Because of our last names, everybody is comparing him [to me],” said the LA Kings top center. “It’s not just in hockey, even in school. When we went to the same school, everybody was comparing him. We’re just different types of people and that’s the way it is. I think whoever figures that out first, it’s going to be better for him.”
That last statement is likely in reference to what Gasper has been dealing with over the past two years.
After a successful run in the USHL, where he even served as team captain for the Des Moines Buccaneers, Gasper signed with Mora IK in Sweden – a team he ultimately left in October of last year, and nearly left the game of hockey for good.
Things started off well enough there though. With the NHL players locked out in the fall of 2012, Anze signed with the same club and the Kopitar Brothers were as happy as could be, excited to be playing together for the first time in their careers.
In a sense, it may have been the worst thing in retrospect because it only heightened the already unfair comparisons between the two.
“I think that was it,” Gasper admitted, when asked if that may have started his downward fall. “He’s such an amazing player that he makes plays that – I don’t want to say I got lazy – but it’s definitely that he does most of the work out there. It was nice and relaxing playing with him. Then all of a sudden, overnight, the lockout ends and then you’re on your own again. You have to do everything yourself again.”
He went on to say he’s still happy they had the experience together, but life was rough once they went their separate ways. In general, coaches and fans expected him to be more like Anze, and that’s not going to work on the ice.
When he had enough, Gasper did what most kids do, he leaned on family to recharge his batteries. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as just a quick phone call or nice meal around the dinner table. In a fairly dark place mentally, Gasper returned to Los Angeles to be closer to his support system. The kid who grew up loving hockey was ready to hand in his skates for good. He thought he was done with the sport and ready to turn the page.
Naturally, he wasn’t very fun to be around during this time.
“It was an all-time low for me, for sure,” Gasper told MayorsManor. “I wasn’t feeling it anymore, I didn’t have the passion for the game whatsoever. That’s why I decided to fly over here, just to see my parents and my brother and maybe get the passion back and everything.”
Those tough couple of months also took a toll on Anze, as the two remain thick as thieves.
“Just to see him struggle, it actually hurt me a lot too,” said Anze. “Now that I see he’s having fun again and playing with passion again and the love of the game, it’s awesome.”
Gasper’s older brother was all smiles after the game Sunday. Certainly happy to watch his brother score the game winning goal, but more excited to know that his sibling is in the right frame of mind once again.
“Seeing him play, and I guess loving the game again, it’s great,” Anze continued. “This is pretty much our life. Hockey has always been first in our lives and he lost it for a little bit. It was very hard for him and hard for the rest of us just being around him, because you don’t know what to say to him. You’re trying to cheer him up but at the end of the day, that’s what he loves to do and he wasn’t happy with it. So, right now, I think he’s having a good time. He’s very happy to be with the team and the guys and that’s what most important.”
That optimism and excitement also carried over to the guy who scored the goal too.
“I got it back now, that passion came back in a hurry just being around the guys and everything,” Gasper noted.
There’s also another factor at play here, former Kings defenseman Mark Hardy, who serves as an assistant coach with the Reign.
“I think Harpo and [Jason Christie, head coach], I think that they know what they’re getting and they’re not comparing him to me,” Anze said. “I think it’s obviously going to do good for him.”
Gasper agrees that the coaching in Ontario could be the key to his future.
“When I first heard about this opportunity, I knew Mark Hardy from the Kings… I know he’s a really good coach and he teaches you a lot. My first thought was that I could learn a lot from him, both sides of the puck, he’s a great defensive coach too.”
And that type of thinking will likely pay dividends moving forward, as Gasper isn’t looking to lead the ECHL in scoring.
“He’s a talented player and he just has to work on his foot speed,” Christie added. “He’s a totally different player than his brother and that’s what he likes – he strives off that. He has a great shot and he’s only 21 years old. At this level, I think it fits his style of game and he competes hard. It’s only uphill from here and we’re excited to have him.”
With Gasper only four games into his tenure with the Reign, Christie thinks there’s still some upside in what the younger Kopitar brings to the table.
“There’s no better way to get into game shape than three [games] in three nights,” quipped the coach, noting the ECHL’s typical weekend schedule.
Even though fans probably shouldn’t expect Gasper, known as more of a defensive forward, to routinely be the guy leading the offense in Ontario, for one night, it was all about him.
Down by a goal, late in the third period, Gasper assisted on the tying marker. Then, in overtime, he rifled the puck over the opposing goalie’s glove hand and sent the packed arena into a frenzy.
Never one to let an opportunity slip by, Christie used the fact Anze and about a dozen friends and family were in attendance as motivation for his newest player.
“We we’re going [into] the third and I said, ‘Your brother just texted me and said to get a goal for him.’ So it was kind of funny that he ended up getting it. I’m glad that he was able to do that with his brother [here]. You think of special moments as a player and stuff – Anze being able to come and watch him here at home and him being able to score the game winner, it’s probably a good feeling that he’s feeling right now.”
As for the future, don’t look for anybody to put the cart in front of the horse – especially Gasper.
“I’m just going from day-to-day right now,” he noted. “I don’t want to over think what’s going to happen in a week or two. I just want to play game per game and see what goes from there. I don’t have any long term plans for myself, I just want to play hockey as long as I can.”
That’s probably a little easier to do when you have the support of a coach who seems to understand you.
“I told him I’ll never judge him like his brother,” Christie added. “He’s Gasper to me and to Harpo, and that’s how we’ll approach it every day. We’re excited to have him.”
5 MUST-READ ARTICLES:
More than just an 82-game season at stake for Anze Kopitar – the Mora experience
Gasper Kopitar’s initial interview on MayorsManor in 2011 – future scout?
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COVER PHOTO by DAVID SHEEHAN