While Team Slovenia and older brother Anze continue to gather big headlines over at the Sochi Olympics, Gasper Kopitar is grinding his way through the ECHL. Once thought to be a likely member of the squad his native country would send to Russia, the younger Kopitar took a few months off earlier this year, preventing him from securing a spot over guys who continued to play for their regular teams. Despite the fact his dad is the coach of the national club, Gasper more than understood the reasoning.
In fact, as we wrote about last month, the stocky forward had bigger issues to wqrry about as the tournament quickly approached. He all but lost his love for the game of hockey last summer, something he would have thought impossible just a year ago.
After a magical ride with Anze in tow during the NHL lockout of 2012, things became downright miserable for Gasper back in Sweden. A mutual parting of the ways with his team in Mora was more than welcomed and a return home to family last October was just the remedy required to recharge his worn out batteries.
Since signing with the Ontario Reign around Christmas time, Kopitar has recorded 11 points in the 16 games he’s played. A knee injury also kept him sidelined for a few games during that stretch, but overall, it’s been a pleasant experience.
“The guys here have been great,” he recently told MayorsManor. “So, it wasn’t hard to settle in. They’re all so nice and everything was clicking right off the bat. I love the organization, love the coaches, love the style we play. I think it’s the perfect hockey for me.”
Just seeing him smile again and speak with such optimism after the mental state he was in six months ago is encouraging. Equally as positive is the team’s view on what Kopitar’s added to the group.
“He’s going to get [even] better as the year goes along,” said coach Jason Christie. “He’s a competitive guy, he knows the hockey game. He’s reliable, he’s a guy you put on the ice and know he’s going to give 110%. From a first year kid, that’s all you want.”
Christie, known for his tough-love approach, also says it’s a style that works well when mentoring kids like the 21-year-old Kopitar.
“He’s a sponge,” said the 2011 CHL Coach of the Year. “You say stuff to him, he takes it. He doesn’t move on, he soaks it in and he comes ready to play,” Christie shared. “He’s a young kid that you want on your team, one who pays attention to the details. He’s a joy to have.”
As for Kopitar himself, he could hardly contain his excitement when asked about what the first month was like, playing for Christie and assistant coach Mark Hardy.
“They’re straight up with you, they don’t hide anything,” he began. “If you’re playing well, they let you know. If you’re doing something bad, they let you know. Which is what I grew up with; that’s how my dad is, and I like it that way.”
Another element that’s been clicking of late is his relationship with linemate Maxim Kitsyn. Originally drafted by the Kings in 2010, the Russian left wing only signed with Los Angeles last summer. He was initially sent to Manchester, but was recently reassigned to Ontario.
“It’s hockey, you can’t complicate it,” Kopitar said, when asked about the two being paired together. “You go out there and play and you compete for each other. Playing with him has been a lot of fun, as he’s a very skilled guy. It’s that much easier when you’re not facing the play and you kind of know where he’s going to be, so you can put it into an area for him where he can skate into it and make a play after. It’s just been easy playing with him. He’s such a big body and such a big skill that he’s going to make those plays that I trust him enough so I go in front of the net and hopefully pucks will hit me. You know what Russians bring to the table, so it’s been nothing but great.”
When it comes to any language barriers, Kopitar was quick to shoot down any notion that it might be a problem.
“He’s actually a pretty funny dude. He cracks jokes on his own. A couple of them don’t come through, but I [try to] understand them. I was in that situation before when I came over. English wasn’t my strong suit, so I feel for him. I try to help him as much as I can. On the ice, it’s X’s and O’s – there’s no language barrier there. If he doesn’t understand anything or he’s trying to explain something, we just go to the board and we draw it out.”
On the Olympic front, despite any disappointment he may have internally, Kopitar has been beaming from ear-to-ear talking about Team Slovenia and what it means to see his native country shine on such a huge international stage.
“I know the guys there and I know they’re going to compete their hearts out,” he said. “That’s the kind of team we are, we take pride and play with heart and never back down and never get up. At the last World Championships, we lost to Canada 3-2 in overtime – just because we didn’t go into the game thinking, ‘Oh God, they have Stamkos on the power play, he’s going to tear us up.’ We just played them. They only have blood under their skin too, they’re not robots. You just have to go out there and try to out-compete the guys.”
So, naturally he’s getting up extra early to watch all the games, right?
“No, I’ll record them. I’m not getting up for that, there’s no chance. We don’t have enough family members on the team to wake up that early,” he said with a huge chuckle.
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