Kopitar's maturity as much an asset as his play
LOS ANGELES -- Kings center Anze Kopitar is acting as a tour guide this week.
His mother, Mataja, and his 14-year-old brother, Gasper, have traveled from Slovenia to Southern California for their first trip to the United States, and will spend Christmas with Anze.
Over the weekend, before their arrival, Kopitar was already talking about what he would show them.
"The beaches, Universal Studios, Disneyland," he said in the Kings' Staples Center dressing room, sounding a bit excited and -- just for a moment, and for once -- like a teenager.
Although he just turned 19 in August, Kopitar led the NHL in rookie scoring for much of the season, at least until the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin recovered from his shoulder problem and hit the ice running. And everywhere, whether it be in the Kings' dressing room, on the road, in the games, even when he's sampling the on-the-town attractions, what's striking about Kopitar is not just his size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), but his maturity.
Close your eyes and you swear this is a 30-year-old.
Maybe it has a bit to do with the path he had to take.
Kopitar was raised in Jesenice, near both the Italian and Austrian borders, when Slovenia was considered part of Yugoslavia.
In the early 1990s, Yugoslav troops attempted to quash Slovenia's attempt to become an independent nation again. In 1992, when Kopitar was 5, the United Nations finally recognized Slovenia.
"Obviously, we were scared when those things were going on," Kopitar said. "But everything turned out fine. When the war was going on, it was only for about 10 days and it didn't impact us. But all the people were happy."
That was about the time when he was beginning to pick up the sport under the tutelage of his father, Matjaz, who had played and gotten into coaching.
"Hockey was not that big in Slovenia," Anze said. "There was always soccer and basketball before hockey."
Soon, though, hockey was No. 1 for Anze.
"My dad made me an ice surface as big as this room," he said, gesturing around the dressing room. "Every time I would come home from school or kindergarten, I would just put on skates and play there."
At 15, he was playing in a men's league, and it was obvious he was at a crossroads. His father coached the local team, which was part of an Austrian league, but there were other challenges on the horizon for Anze.
"I reached my goals in Slovenia," he said, "so I knew I had to go somewhere else and step forward."
He had just turned 17 when he went to Sodertalje, Sweden, to play, first with a junior affiliate, but then in the Swedish Elite League for five games in 2004-05 and all of last season. (His mother also had to accept the loss of Anze as a waiter in the family restaurant.) There were no "billet" parents for him; he lived alone in an apartment near the Sodertalje arena.
Who'll win the Calder Trophy? Does Anze Kopitar have more than a chance to beat out Evgeni Malkin? Check out the rookie race, and other award duels, with ESPN.com's Trophy Tracker.
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"It was hard because I wasn't around my family," he said. "I was there by myself, but I got used to it. I liked hockey so much, I was willing to pay that price, too."
The Kings had made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2005 draft, and it's not out of line to wonder if that one word in his bio -- "Slovenia" -- caused just enough skepticism to drop him out of the top 10.
"I think that was part of it," he said, and then smiled. "Actually, I'm glad I went later, because you can't really beat L.A. for the lifestyle, so I'm really happy about that."
He says it -- "L.A." -- naturally, and he wouldn't look out of place singing along with Randy Newman and riding down the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible. His apartment is in Hermosa Beach, and he again is living alone after his original apartment mate, Patrick O'Sullivan, was sent down to Manchester of the AHL. Kopitar is developing a friendship with fellow Slovenian Sasha Vujacic, the Lakers' guard, so there are occasional bursts of conversation in Slovenian at the teams' joint practice facility in El Segundo.
As of Tuesday, Kopitar's 24 points (six goals, 18 assists) left him second on the rookie list, six points behind Malkin. The Penguins center seems a lock for the Calder Trophy if he stays healthy, but Kopitar at least will be in the hunt.
"You're used to seeing young players come in, especially offensive players, and they're really good with the puck and on the offense," Kings captain Mattias Norstrom said. "With Anze, he looks like an older player, the way he plays the center position. He's very responsible defensively, so you find him a lot of the time on the defensive side of the puck, coming up on the ice. I would call him more the classic centerman. Most pucks come through him and he gets them out to his wingers. If you look at his stats, you'd think maybe he was cheating a little bit on the offensive side to create offense, but I'd really say the opposite. He's responsible in his own end and he takes care of that before he goes on offense."
And his maturity?
"He's a respectful young player," Norstrom said. "Probably at all the levels he's played, he's been the youngest guy. That's such a pleasant thing to see. He comes in, he listens, and he's really respectful. Then, on the ice, he has no respect, it seems, because of the way he challenges guys one-on-one or how he uses his size."
Kings coach Marc Crawford, who was with Quebec when Peter Forsberg broke into the league at 21 (and looked about 17), said Kopitar "is very mature, very well-grounded. We can't take credit for that. Obviously, he's had a real good upbringing, and that's a compliment to his parents and the people who have been responsible for his development.
"[Kopitar] maybe could have played here last year, but that wouldn't have been the right step. He's taken the right steps along the way. We weren't totally sure he was ready to play here at the start of the year, but he came very determined to make our decision an easy one."
"[Kopitar's teammates] love him because he shows so much respect for his teammates and, more than that, for the game," Crawford added. "He's very respectful for the people in it. A lot of great young players now come in and they have so much edge to them and their personality. He is so grounded and so respectful and so hard-working. I don't think enough gets said about those types of qualities in people, and to have it from a 19-year-old is so special. We can't take credit for that, but we sure can appreciate that we've got it and are trying to nurture it."
Kopitar is averaging 20 minutes of ice time, as much as Malkin, so the Kings are showing considerable trust in him. The other issue is that with the Kings hoping to reassert themselves in the crowded Southlands sports marketplace, and even avoid becoming completely overshadowed by the Ducks, having a well-spoken young star who could do a guest turn on "General Hospital" as an exchange student couldn't hurt. The Calder Trophy would be a bonus, but not mandatory if the Kings and the NHL consent to use him as a marketing tool.
"Right now, I don't think about the Calder race or anything," he said. "The team is struggling a little bit and I want to help my team the best I can to win games and make the playoffs. If, in the end, I'm rewarded with the Calder Trophy, I would be really glad."
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."