|Gasper Kopitar (Bryce Loshman photo)|
Anze Kopitar had scored five goals this month. Gasper Kopitar just one.
Last Saturday, Anze went on the shelf. Thousands of miles away, younger Gasper was skating in a junior game with the Des Moines Buccaneers, probably trying to go top shelf (and adding to his nine goals on the season).
While it will be many more months before Anze steps on the ice again, Gasper is playing out his first full season in the USHL – the top junior hockey league in the United States.
However, when your older brother is the first player from your home country to make the NHL – and a first round draft pick to boot – the comparisons are inevitable. Unfortunately.
Gasper spent many years growing up in Southern California and even played for the Jr. Kings. After he moved on the WHL, things just didn’t work out as planned. But, he’s back on track now, as he’ll tell you below.
And even though he went undrafted last year, he still has dreams of the NHL. If things don’t work out though, we may have just discovered a second calling for him during our conversation.
From Jesenice, Slovenia to Manhattan Beach, California…then, Oregon and now Iowa. It’s just your typical hockey story…
MM: Let’s start start with Slovenia. You’ve represented your country at the two most recent World Junior Championships, in the ‘other’ tournament (where lower level teams try to earn a spot among the 10 teams at the main tournament). You’ve won a silver and a bronze. Was losing the gold medal game this year the toughest loss of your career?
GK: It’s certainly right up there. But, we gave everything we had. It was a 2-1 game against Denmark this year and we could have won that game. But, their goalie was playing well. I’m really happy though that our country is getting bigger and bigger in hockey and it shows. Next year, we’re going for gold.
MM: Speaking of Slovenia getting more recognition in the hockey world, earlier this season the Detroit Red Wings called up forward Jan Mursak, the second Slovenian player in the NHL. Was that a big deal to you?
GK: For sure. Back home, all over the news, my brother was obviously the first one and it’s really good to see some other guys coming up. He (Mursak) spent a lot of time down in the minors and then he got a shot. It was also nice to see him score a goal against Colorado. It’s awesome to see guys come from a small country and play on such a big stage.
MM: There were rumors last year – or maybe it was just wishful thinking on the part of some people – that Anze was thinking about becoming an American citizen, so he could play for the U.S. in the next Olympics. What do you think about that?
GK: I don’t think that’s true. That’s just a rumor. I know him pretty well and he’s happy with our national team. Our goal for 2014 is to make the Olympics. Hockey continues to get bigger (back home) and I think we really have a shot at it. Let’s hope we’ll be in the 2014 Olympics.
MM: When you were about 15-16 years old Anze talked about you being bigger than he was at the same age. So, were you thinking you’d probably grow into a frame that was larger than his?
GK: For sure. Nowadays, hockey is big and physical. You have to be big if you want to play hockey. I still think I have some growing left, but I’m pretty satisfied with my height and weight right now.
MM: You’re listed at 6-foot, is that a real height or an exaggerated hockey number?
GK: I’m about five-eleven, maybe six-feet, on a good day.
MM: Prior to landing in the USHL, you were with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL – where the Kings have quite a few prospects, including Brayden Schenn.
GK: I didn’t play against him. I certainly watched him though. He’s a great player. I’m not sure what was going on in LA, but I think he could have stuck around there because he’s such a good player. He showed it at the World Juniors this year and broke the Canadian record for points. That just shows you how good of a player he is.
MM: How about Brandon Kozun and Martin Jones (now with Manchester), they were with the Calgary Hitmen last year…
GK: Yeah, I actually played a game in Calgary (with Portland). Kozun, he’s a little bit smaller, but he’s explosive, has a great nose around the net and he’s just an offensive powerhouse. Jones is a big, tall goaltender. He’s really good and moves side to side really well. I really liked him. He’s playing well in Manchester too, even making the All Star team. So, that just shows you what a great signing it was for the Kings.
MM: And Jordan Weal of the Regina Pats (now with Manchester also)?
GK: I actually skated with Jordan last summer. We have the same agent, so they brought us all to LA and we skated. He’s an amazing player. He’s good around the net, great hockey sense and he’s a player you should look for in the future to play for the LA Kings.
MM: Finally, how about Linden Vey of the Medicine Hat Tigers?
GK: I didn’t play against him, but I know he was having a great season in the ‘Dub, even leading the league in points or was near the top. So, I’ll assume he’s another good player too.
MM: I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with your knowledge of the league. But, what about your situation – you ended up leaving Portland when you became unhappy with your playing time, is that right?
GK: Well, it’s not just the playing time. When you’re 17 and 18 years old, you have to play hockey, no matter what. You can practice to a certain level, but games are what you make you better. You have to play games to gain that experience that the next level is looking for. We just came to an agreement that they would let me go so I could come here to Des Moines.
MM: For those that haven’t seen you play, how would you describe your game?
GK: When I first came to Des Moines they asked me that exact question and I told them ‘I’m not a pure goal scorer. I like to play in my own zone too.’ So, I’ve paid special attention to that. I’ve played a lot of penalty kill and I’ve played against their (the other teams) top forwards and I just like to shut them down. But, at the same time, I try to get scoring opportunities.
MM: When you say ‘I’m not a pure goal scorer’ is that your way of politely telling people not to compare you to your brother, almost saying ‘I’m not Anze, I’m my own person’?
GK: For sure. People compare me to him all the time. But, even if you ask him, he’ll tell you that we’re totally different players. He’s more an offensive guy than I am. It shows in the goal column too, as I don’t have as many as he does. But, I don’t play as much on the power play as he does. I also play more penalty kill that he does, that’s for sure.
MM: On some level do the constant comparisons become frustrating and maybe not allow you to properly develop your own game?
GK: It was frustrating at the beginning when I came over to the U.S. and everyone was like, ‘Yeah, this is his brother. He’s supposed to be really good.’ Then, they’d actually see me play and they’d say ‘This guy is not really good.’ Stuff like that threw me off for a little bit. But, I got used to it pretty fast. Once a lot of people saw that I wasn’t the same player as he is, they stopped comparing me to him.
MM: Perhaps another challenge was having your dad as a coach…
GK: It’s always good when you have somebody who pushes you extra hard. I liked when he was watching every game and giving me pointers. Whatever I would do wrong, every night he would tell me what to do better the next night. I just like it. I still call him after every game. We talk for 15 minutes and go through the whole game. I like that he’s pretty straight forward with me. I think it improves my game quite a bit.
Kopitar and the Buccaneers have six games left in their regular season, including one tomorrow night against the Fargo Force. Much like the Kings, they’re in a tough battle to secure one of the final post season spots in their conference.
In the meantime, Gasper says he’s at the rink everyday, all day and only thinks of hockey.
At some point in the future though, if things don’t work out on the ice, he may want to look into scouting.
He’s as much a student of the game as he is a developing player in the game.
Follow-up article –> Anze Kopitar on his younger brother, Gasper
Interview with Linden Vey – 2011 WHL Scoring Champion
Interview with Tyler Toffoli – 2011 OHL Scoring Champion