Published May 31, 2012
Even kids in Slovenia dream of scoring the winning Stanley Cup goal and Anze Kopitar lived that unlikely fantasy with a spectacular overtime winner in Game One of the National Hockey League championship series.
Kopitar's goal may not have been a Game Seven clincher but it was no less dramatic and the biggest of the playoffs thus far for the Kings, lifting them to 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"That's what you play in the backyard, pretty much every day you are playing in a Game Seven scoring the deciding goal and the memories are still there," recalled Kopitar.
For most kids in Slovenia, the tiny European nation of nearly two million sandwiched between Austria, Italy, Hungary Croatia, imaginary games contested on playgrounds more likely involve a soccer ball, a packed World Cup stadium and a golden goal.
But for Kopitar, the son of a former hockey player and coach of the Slovenian national team, the dream was the same as most Canadian kids, even though his exposure to the NHL growing up in Jesenice, a former steel town near the Austrian border, was limited by time difference and strict parents.
"If it was available, my parents wouldn't let me stay up to watch because of the six-hour time difference and having school the next day there was no chance," laughed Kopitar.
"One game I remember I was able to watch was Florida and Colorado when it was going to a third or fourth overtime and I woke up early enough to see that goal."
It is certain many more were watching on Wednesday, including 200 on a big screen in the Jesenice town square, when Kopitar took a feed from Justin Williams, broke in alone on the Devils' Martin Brodeur and coolly slipped the puck under the sprawling future Hall of Fame netminder to stun the capacity crowd at the Prudential Center.
"If you're going to have a breakaway in overtime you're going to want it on Kopi's stick, he's the player you want taking the shot at the end of a game," gushed Kings captain Dustin Brown on Thursday.
"That's what you want your best players to find ways to win games and he did that."
With his country hardly a hockey factory, Kopitar was the only Slovenian to play in the NHL until last year when he was joined by national squad team mate Jan Mursak of the Detroit Red Wings.
UNDER THE RADAR
Playing on the west coast, Kopitar has largely flown under the fans' radar but these playoffs have represented a coming out party for the 24-year-old center.
Taken by the Kings with the 11th overall selection in the 2005 draft, Kopitar may well go down as the steal in a rich draft class that included number one pick Sidney Crosby, number two Bobby Ryan, number three Jack Johnson and number five Carey Price.
A big, strong and skilled center, Kopitar has scored more than 20 goals and 60 points in each of his six seasons in the league. This post-season he ranks among the playoffs' top scorers with seven goals and nine assists.
While most hockey fans in the United States would have trouble finding Slovenia on a map, Kopitar is quickly becoming his country's most famous sporting export.
"I think it's pretty big," said Kopitar, when asked if Slovenians were following the Stanley Cup. "I've gone on line and am following our media back home and it's getting pretty big which is cool."
Kopitar returns home to Slovenia each summer and no doubt would like to bring the Stanley Cup back with him on his next visit.
Part of the Stanley Cup tradition is that each player on the winning team gets a day to spend with the treasured trophy.
The famous mug has been feted in many countries but has never been paraded through the streets of a Slovenian city. With three more Los Angeles wins, the silver chalice might add a new stamp to its passport.
Now living the hockey dream, Kopitar admits he still has to pinch himself on occasion as the Kings inch towards the franchise's first ever Stanley Cup.
"You never know when you're going to get here or when you're going to get back," said Kopitar.
"It's pretty exciting actually, sometimes I catch myself day dreaming a little bit but you have to snap out of it pretty quick or you get caught up in it and that's not going to be good."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Newark, Jersey; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)