NEWARK, N.J. - Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar lives in Manhattan Beach, a short drive to the Kings' practice facility, but nine time zones from Jesenice, Slovenia where he learned to play on a backyard rink built by his Dad and grandfather.
Kopitar's hometown is not far from the Austrian border, and it was seven years ago in Innsbruck, Austria that a 17-year-old Kopitar had his coming out party as a teenage hockey sensation at the 2005 world championship.
"I remember him from that tournament," said New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who has the difficult task of trying to stop Kopitar and the Kings in the Stanley Cup final, which begins at the Prudential Center on Wednesday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET).
Brodeur backed up Roberto Luongo when Canada beat Slovenia 8-0 in 2005, and Brodeur had a front-row seat of Kopitar's talent as a teenager.
"He was unbelievable," Brodeur said. "He wasn't drafted yet so I paid attention [a few months later] to what team drafted him. I was glad he went to a Western Conference team. We'll have to pay special attention to him in this series."
Slovenia sure has. Kopitar, who speaks English, Slovenian, Serbian, German and a little Swedish, has kept an eye on media reports back home on him and the Kings in this playoff run.
"It's getting pretty big, which is pretty cool," Kopitar said.
In NHL circles, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick has been superb and Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown has been at his physical best and scored some key goals, but Kopitar has been the Kings' most valuable player in this playoff run. Just ask well-spoken Los Angeles defenceman Willie Mitchell.
"Awesome player," were the first words out of Mitchell's mouth, when he was asked about his teammate on Tuesday. "I didn't notice him much when I played against him when I was with Vancouver. He was a good player, but I didn't appreciate him until I got here. Night-in, night-out, he's our best player. The goalie gets a lot of attention and so does Dustin, and they deserve it, but Kopy has done everything for us.
"The best compliment I can give him is that I think he's like [Detroit Red Wings centre] Pavel Datsyuk. He can do so many things offensively for your team, but he also is so good defensively. He's so good down low with his size in helping out the defence. He just plays well positionally. He gets it."
When Kopitar played in that world championship in Austria, he already was 6-foot-2, but on the slight side. Now his frame has filled out to 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds and there are not many defenders who can handle his wicked combination of size, strength and skill.
Kopitar is his country's first breakout hockey star. His father Matijaz played in Slovenia's top league and later coached the national team.
But at age 16, Anze was so good he played in his country's top league and scored 15 goals and 27 points in 25 combined regular season and playoff games. He needed to find better competition, so he left for Sweden and played there until he joined the Kings for the 2006-07 season. It was evident early on that the Kings made the right choice in drafting him.
He learned the ropes in his rookie season from a trio of caring veterans in Rob Blake, Mattias Norstrom and Craig Conroy. They made sure he was comfortable in his new surroundings. They taught him about the importance of looking after himself.
"They're classy guys," Kopitar said.
Kopitar improved each season and proved to be durable. He played in 330 consecutive games until he was knocked out for the season with a broken ankle with seven games to go in 2010-11. To miss the playoffs was devastating for him.
Now he's attracting more admirers with his reliable play this spring. He has produced 15 points in the Kings' 14-game run so far, and Kopitar has a plus-minus rating of plus-13. He continues to turn heads just like he did in Austria, seven years ago at the world championship.
"I was pretty excited about that game," said Kopitar, who was asked how he developed so swiftly into an elite-level player.
"There's always room for improvement. You have to make sure you take care of yourself first. It starts with the off-season. Then on the ice when the season starts, you want to improve every time, work on your game. I think since '05, I've had plenty of time to work on that. I know it's worked out pretty good for me."
Kopitar was a steal in 2005
The Pittsburgh Penguins obviously were satisfied with winning the Sidney Crosby draft sweepstakes back in 2005. But there are some teams that would like to redo that draft with the way Anze Kopitar developed. Here is a glance at the first 11 picks at the 2005 entry draft.
1. Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh); 2. Bobby Ryan (Anaheim); 3. Jack Johnson (Carolina); 4. Benoit Pouliot (Minnesota); 5. Carey Price (Montreal); 6. Gilbert Brule (Columbus); 7. Jack Skille (Chicago); 8. Devon Setoguchi (San Jose); 9. Brian Lee (Ottawa); 10. Luc Bourdon (Vancouver); 11. Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles).
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