Slovenia gears up for Russia clash
When Slovenia makes its Olympic debut against Russia on Thursday, there will be plenty of proud parents following their sons in action. But none will be watching as closely as Matjaz Kopitar.
Having fulfilled a four-year plan and coached the unheralded former Yugoslav republic to the Games, Kopitar Sr will be looking for big-game leadership from his son Anze, a Stanley Cup winner with Los Angeles Kings.
For Anze, who initially found his path into the national team hampered by his dad's desire to avoid allegations of favouritism, lining up as centre against the hosts is going to be a proud family moment.
"It's pretty special," he said. "He's done a very good job with the team first to get to this point and now being here is a big accomplishment for him. Now we're ready to enjoy it."
It's one of those back stories that adds to the savour of the tournament but there's a note of sadness - and perhaps ruthlessness - underlying the tale of happy families. Anze's younger brother Gaspar, part of the team which stunned Denmark, Belarus and Ukraine to book its place in Sochi, won't be joining the party on the Black Sea.
Lack of form and a level of disaffection with the game has seen the 21-year-old lose his place on the national roster - a heart-wrenching call for all three Kopitars.
"[Matjaz] got put in a tough spot with my brother," Anze admitted. "Gaspar was in the team which qualified a year ago but this year hasn't gone the way he wanted. He switched clubs and it didn't quite work out and he didn't play for a bit.Continue reading
"In the end I think the coach made the right decision but it was very hard for him and my brother - and for me, for that matter. Gaspar's playing in the ECHL and they won't have a break so he's staying over there [during the Games]."
Qualifying for the Olympics has changed people's perceptions of hockey in Slovenia, a country with just one pro team (Olimpija Ljubljana in the Austria-based EBEL), seven rinks and 148 registered players. The 25-strong Olympic roster has called up one in six of the available talent - a staggering statistic.
So when Matjaz took charge in 2010 and stated that the team could get to Sochi, not everybody took him seriously - but that has changed.
"Even a year ago when we qualified it was obvious that it was going to be a huge deal," Anze said. "Nobody's had a bad word to say about the team since then. Hopefully more and more kids will start playing hockey and we can develop more good players. It will take a little while to do that but I think we're on the right track."
Before a new generation can emerge, though, there's the small matter of facing a rampant Russia in front of a frenzied crowd in game one of the Olympics. And for Kopitar, that means a potential clash with his LA Kings clubmate, defenceman Slava Voinov.
"I've played with Slava for a couple of years now. He's a very good defenceman and you always like to see him in the first line," he said. "I'm not sure if I'll be on the ice against him or not. I know him well and I've seen him enough to say I don't think he has many weaknesses.
"We talked about the game a bit but we've not had time to talk much because the schedule over there's been pretty hectic. We've been joking a bit, but nothing really serious."
But that laid-back approach will end when the puck is dropped. Even if the teams' respective aims are very different, Kopitar has hopes of springing a surprise.
"We're all professional athletes and we want to win," he said. "We won't worry too much about them; we have to think about ourselves, to get into a position to play some good hockey. You can't say what the score might be - maybe they'll be a little tentative because of the pressure on them.
"It should be a fun game for us to play in - we're up against the hosts and people are getting excited."
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