Soccer helped kick-start hockey careers for Kings' Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin

Drew Doughty was just 15 when his parents asked him to make a decision that would affect the rest of his life: Did he want to pursue a career in soccer or hockey?

“I was just as good at soccer as I was at hockey,” Doughty says now. “But living in Canada, it’s going to be tough to make it [in soccer] anywhere. So I kind of gave it up.”

That turned out to be a good choice since Doughty, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Kings and the NHL’s top defenseman last season, makes more than $7.4 million a year playing hockey. But that doesn’t mean he’s completely forgotten his other love.

“When I was a kid, soccer was just as important to me as hockey was,” said Doughty, a former goalkeeper. “I played at the highest level I could. And enjoyed it.

“I miss playing it all the time.”

Doughty, 27, isn’t the only one in Kings’ locker room who grew up playing soccer — nor the only one who sometimes wonders what would have happened had he stayed with it.

Captain Anze Kopitar starred in the sport as a boy in his native Slovenia and continued playing to stay in shape after joining the NHL.

“You can tell he’s got some skills,” teammate Jake Muzzin said.

So does Muzzin, 27, an attacking midfielder who played in a top-level youth program in London, Canada, before being confronted with the same choice Doughty had to make.

“I came to a point where I had to pick, either soccer or hockey,” he said. “And growing up in Canada, hockey is obviously the main sport.”

Muzzin shares other soccer memories with Doughty. Since the two grew up 50 miles and 10 months apart — Muzzin in Waterloo, Doughty in London — they faced each other in regional tournaments more than once, though Muzzin couldn’t remember for sure who won.

“I would think him,” he said. “London had more guys, a better program.”

Doughty also had a deeper soccer pedigree. Both his mother, Connie, whose family comes from Portugal, and his father, Paul, who grew up in England, played the sport growing up. Doughty’s father is such a diehard fan he named his only daughter Chelsea, after the iconic London club he cheered as a boy.

Fittingly, Chelsea Doughty played soccer too, earning an athletic scholarship to Niagara University in upstate New York.

The only time Doughty and Muzzin touch a soccer ball these days is during the pregame “two-touch” competitions many NHL players use as an off-ice warmup. The rules can vary slightly from team to team, but basically the game consists of trying to keep a soccer ball in the air as it’s passed between players.

Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said many of the European players who streamed into the NHL over the last two decades brought soccer training techniques such as two-touch with them. And he said that helps on several levels.

“It gets them warmed up, it gets the reflexes [going] and it allows them to be in sort of a group setting and have a little fun before the game,” Sutter said.

Muzzin believes skills learned in soccer transfer to hockey in more basic ways as well.

“Give-and-gos and stuff like that. Awareness. Being a little more agile on your feet because you played soccer growing up as opposed to just playing hockey,” he said. “You pick up little stuff like that you don’t really notice. But it has an effect on your body.”

Muzzin rarely pays attention to soccer these days, but Doughty remains a big fan, especially of the English Premier League, which naturally includes his favorite team, Chelsea. However, he knows he’ll never play the game again.

“No, never,” he said. “[But] I play ‘FIFA’ on Xbox all day.”

KINGS: NEXT UP

AT CALGARY

When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m.

On the air: TV: FS West; Radio: 790.

Update: On their abbreviated two-game, 26-hour trip to Alberta, the Kings will play two of the three teams immediately ahead of them in the playoff chase. First up are the Flames, whose season-longest 10-game winning streak was snapped last week. But Calgary, which got back on the winning track Friday by beating Dallas, had to work hard during the streak, going to overtime in four of those wins — one of them over the Kings.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: kbaxter11

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