Build Slovenian national program
Almost a decade later, Matjas Kopitar still vividly remembers the day his eldest son left Slovenia to play pro hockey in Sweden. It was the beginning of a hockey journey that would see Anze Kopitar eventually win the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings. It was also a pivotal moment for Slovenian hockey, which in April was promoted to the top division at the IIHF World Championship.
But at the time, Matjas Kopitar was devastated.
"That was the worst time in my life. He was still a kid, he was 16," said Kopitar, who played in his native Slovenia as well as Austria, and currently serves as the head coach of the Slovenian national team. "It was really tough for the whole family. Especially for his brother, they were really connected."
Nine years later, younger brother Gasper now plays for the Swedish club Mora while Matjas' national team won the Division I Group A World Championship, which was played in Slovenia last April. With their 3-2 win in the final over Austria, a country boasting four times Slovenia's population, Kopitar's troops earned promotion to the highest level of World Championship competition.
It's a remarkable accomplishment for the small country of 2 million people, which according to the IIHF has only 943 registered hockey players. Considering the countries they'll be competing against in next year's World Championship, like Canada (572,411 players), the United States (500,579), Sweden (62,003) and Russia (63,580), Kopitar will be hard-pressed to keep Slovenia in the top division.
"Our goal right now is to stay in this highest level. I think we have some guys who can play there," Kopitar told NHL.com. "We have maybe 35 guys who can play for the national team. Everyone is important. We are like a miracle, with what we're doing and how we're doing it."
Slovenia will at least be getting a boost from Anze, whose postseason heroics made him a national hero. When he brought the Cup to his small hometown of Jesenice, 5,000 people from as far away as Hungary, Austria and Croatia attended the festivities. For the elder Kopitar, who celebrated the Cup victory with his son in Los Angeles, it was the realization of a lifelong dream.
"The best moment for me was after the game when we stepped on the ice. For me, as a hockey man, it was unbelievable," Kopitar said. "It was really a big thing. The youth program now [has] grown quite a bit here. But moneywise everything here is not really bright."
The economic depression that has decimated Europe has cast a long shadow over an otherwise remarkable year for the Kopitars' hometown. Located mere miles from the Austrian border, Jesenice has been historically known for its steel industry and its hockey team. When the former dried up, the latter was hurt as well. It all culminated three weeks ago, when 32-time national champion Acroni Jesenice declared bankruptcy and ceased operations. It's a staggering development for Matjas, who was a player and coach for the club before experiencing a falling out with the team a few years ago.
"The people who run this team the last 10 years, they didn't have much of a clue about the game and obviously they didn't have much clue about the management too. This is a really sad thing for our city," Kopitar said. "Our city was known in Europe for a big hockey history combined with the steel factory. We were a hard-working people with a hard-working team. The biggest problem is for the kids who just jumped into this pro team. Now they don't have a team where they can play."
Ultimately, Slovenia's first family of hockey may be able to best serve their hometown by continuing their current success -- especially Anze, whose local legend continues to grow with every NHL season.
"He was the kid with me in the locker room. He didn't have much chance to do other things because he was always with me at the rink," Kopitar said of his son. "Me and Anze, we're going to try to help the youth program here as much as we can. Then we'll see how it will go."
Author: Tal Pinchevsky | NHL.com Staff Writer