Kopitar brothers bonding during lockout
NOV 05, 2012 4:21p ET
It was around the same time that his younger brother, Gasper, a former Los Angeles Junior King who had recently emerged as a scoring threat in the United States Hockey League, was mulling over an interesting proposition to play professionally in Mora, Sweden.
By the twist of fate brought on by the NHL lockout, now in its third month, the two are linemates for Mora IK in Sweden’s HockeyAllsvenskan as Anze has made his younger brother’s first professional season a memorable one.
The Kopitars have gone from never having played in an organized game together to skating alongside each other as a center and right wing. The decision to play and live with his brother in Sweden is clearly Anze’s best-case-in-a-lousy-situation scenario.
"We were kind of joking around over the summer, you know, if the lockout does happen, I was going to come play here and we could spend some time together and play in an official game for the first time," Anze said.
"This team was my first option all the way," Anze said. "As soon as they were locked out, we started talking here, because I wanted to join the team just to stay in the rhythm, too, and not have to work out by myself and practice by myself. So this is way more fun, and the fact that I can play with him and maybe help him for a little bit too makes this pretty special."
Five years is a large gap between siblings, and it proved prohibitively wide for 25-year-old Anze and 20-year-old Gasper Kopitar, two brothers whose history playing together had mainly been limited to recreational and conditioning skating.
When Anze was emerging as a promising prospect at Sodertalje SK in Stockholm County between 2004 and 2006, Gasper was never more than 14 years old. By the time Gasper had developed into the team captain and leading goal scorer of the USHL's Des Moines Buccaneers, an NHL-hardened Anze was on his way to a signature postseason performance in the Kings' Stanley Cup march.
Now, the two skate on a productive line; Anze leads the team with six goals and 17 points in 16 games, while Gasper, a right wing, ranks sixth.
Mora IK head coach Patric Wener had scouted a teenage Gasper as a coach at Red Bull Salzburg while Gasper was in the process of trying to crack the lineup of a dominant Portland Winterhawks WHL team three years ago. During his 18- and 19-year-old seasons in Des Moines, Gasper showed significant development, enough so that he decided to forego a 20-year-old junior season to play professionally for the coach who had been a part of his earlier recruitment.
"He got a tryout for two months, and he made the tryout, and now he's here and I'm really happy for it," Wener said. "He's a young guy with a good future."
But it’s the older brother who’s a popular subject in Mora these days, and for a well-paid recent champion and someone who has emerged as the most prominent professional athlete his country (Slovenia) has ever produced, the only thing that separates Anze from his Mora IK teammates is his NHL skill. There is no baggage, no pretense, no scene.
“Unbelievable how hard he works for this team,” Wener said. “He didn’t need to do it, but he really brought great leadership to this team, and it’s incredible how good of a hockey player and a person he is. So he helps everybody on this team and even the club to get much, much better. He is a pro.”
Though Gasper joked that "most of the time I'm trying to stay out of his way," the two have displayed cohesion during recent games.
"I've watched him for five years when he played in LA, so I know what he's capable of, and what he does out there. It's pretty easy for me. I don't know how he felt, but I felt like we've played together before," Gasper said.
Anze was amply respected by Vasteras in the teams' last matchup and erupted for four points, but it was his assist in that 6-2 victory on Gasper's first professional goal that will serve as perhaps the most enduring memory of his return to Sweden.
"I think I was probably happier than him," Anze said of Gasper's goal off a rebound.
"It was just nice to see how he's developed from a young buck, and having me watch him at the same time and seeing him play in LA and a little bit in Portland and Des Moines, and now here, I think he's come a long way," Anze said.
Next up, Anze and Gasper will play for Slovenia’s national team, coached by their father, Matjaz. Gasper's first calling and Anze’s first time with the team in five years features a round robin schedule against France, Austria and Italy beginning on Nov. 8. The games provide early opportunities for national team player evaluations in advance of February’s Olympic qualification tournaments.
Though Anze's desire to be playing NHL hockey is clear and definite, this fallback lockout option has developed into the experience all have expected it would, both on and off the ice.
“We usually just play video games or watch movies and go for walks,” Anze said in describing their free time. “There’s a nice little promenade street where you can go for a nice coffee or an afternoon walk.”
Anze will eventually return to Los Angeles having experienced a fulfilling stint of playing alongside his brother while representing his country. By that time, hitting the reset button and prepping for the Kings' first Stanley Cup title defense will be the next task. When that time comes, he'll look back on a unique experience.
"He's five years younger and in his first-year pro season, and I was able to be a part of this – it's pretty special," he said.
+ SHOW COMMENTS +