SOCHI, Russia—Matjaz Kopitar is a familiar sight around the Kings’ practice rink in El Segundo, usually watching proudly from upstairs while his son, Anze, hones the skills that have made the younger Kopitar one of the NHL’s top centers.
Matjaz was around a rink on Wednesday, but he was thousands of miles away from Southern California. And he was on the ice instead of watching as he prepared to coach Team Slovenia in its Olympic hockey debut.
“It’s a little different,” he said, smiling.
Slovenia practiced twice Wednesday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome training rink, though Anze Kopitar—its only NHL player—remained in Los Angeles to finish out the Kings’ pre-Olympic schedule. Most of Slovenia’s players come from European leagues; forward Jan Mursak played a bit for the Detroit Red Wings before leaving to play for CSKA Moscow of Russia’s KHL.
Slovenia is in a tough group with host Russia, Slovakia and the U.S., and Matjaz Kopitar is realistic about the team’s chances.
“We play the first three games against the teams where Olympic medals mean something. They already had Olympic medals and we are big underdogs,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to compete hard. That’s the way we play. If you are not skilled enough, you need to find another way how to compete against these teams. My biggest wish is just to be a competitive team and try our best.”
For Slovenia, that means playing a defense-oriented style.
“Of course. We need to shut down those big guys and that’s going to be our goal,” said Matjaz, whose voice is eerily like his son's. “We can’t run with them all over the ice.”
He said he has an idea of where his son will play but hasn’t told the rest of the team and so wouldn’t be specific. “Hopefully they’re going to click together quickly,” he said.
But it’s clear that Anze will play a lot.
“He is a big factor for this team and he’s going to try to help us out in all kinds of situations on the ice,” Matjaz said. “Everybody knows that and he knows that too, so it’s not a secret.”
Slovenia captain Tomaz Razingar, who was chosen to carry the country’s flag in Friday’s opening ceremony, said the team is eagerly awaiting Anze Kopitar’s arrival.
“He’s doing a great job in Los Angeles. He’s helping the team there,” said Razingar, who played two seasons in North America, in the ECHL and NHL, and now plays in Sweden.
“And of course I think he would be on any team here, but thank God he’s Slovenian. He’s going to have a big impact on our team.”
The team, Razingar said, is close-knit and eager to perform on the world stage.
“No one expected we would be here but we are. We will enjoy the time here and hopefully we can take the points away from the big teams,” he said.
“We cannot lose anything. We’ve got special chemistry going on and we’re having fun.”
They’ll have some support from Kings fans, who have sort of adopted Slovenia out of respect for Anze Kopitar. Matjaz said he heard many good wishes when he was in Los Angeles.
“Kings fans are really into it and said they’re going to cheer for us,” he said. “Of course, not when we play the United States but everybody there is excited, maybe even more than our people back home.
“It’s huge and it’s really nice to see the support from all those people around.”
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