The man who could be King of LA
Anze Kopitar, 23, is the low profile leading scorer on the talented young Kings
Kopitar feels owning an Escalade is too immodest, but wants a Stanley Cup ring
Big, strong and gifted, Kopitar speaks five languages and lives with his parents
At face value, the surname spelling of Anze Kopitar (On-jay Ko-pit-tar) looks a little like a prescription serotonin reuptake inhibitor.
Ask your doctor if Kopitar is right for you. Don't take Kopitar if you are pregnant. Side effects of Kopitar may include dizziness, dry mouth or extreme paranoia of 6-foot-3, 220-pound skaters dressed in black and purple.
There is that face. It's a little bit late 1970s Leif Garrett-meets-Marty Feldman. There is also the hockey player. Without his prodigious skills, there is probably not much interest in that distinctive name or mug. But while "Kopy" the 23-year-old center has yet to replace "Kobe" the 32-year-old guard in the everyday vernacular of sporting Angelenos, and almost certainly never will, he is the Kings' best hope of having actual royalty on their roster since a certain fellow wore No. 99 for them quite a while ago.
"When he's on his game, you can't take the puck away from him," says Kings coach Terry Murray, who once coached another pretty big, skilled center named Eric Lindros. "He's that powerful, that big, that strong. When he makes plays to the net like (he can), you just say 'what a powerful player.'"
Kopitar, who has scored 20 or more goals in each of his first four NHL seasons, was born in the former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia). His mother Mataja and father Matjaz (who is coach of the Slovenian national hockey team) live with him in his L.A.-area home, and have ever since he arrived in the NHL with the Kings. He's the kind of person who thought that giving up his Toyota Camry for an Escalade was a possibly conceited, risky change of social status, so don't expect him to ever go La-La Land -- even if they name a kind of beef for him like they did that for that Lakers guy.
"I still like my privacy off the ice," says Kopitar, who leads the Kings with 42 points (15 goals) 39 games into the season. "I still like going out to dinner and just blending in."
Here's the rub: he doesn't want to blend in that easily in L.A. Nobody in the 43-year history of the franchise can say they won a Stanley Cup ring while skating for the Kings, but Kopitar very badly wants to become part of the first group that does. In a town where bling is king, this King would trade some of his privacy if it means having to wear a bauble that gets noticed even at Chasen's or Spago.
Kopitar signed a seven-year, $47.6 million contract in 2008 after a 32-goal breakout season. Asked if money has changed him at all, he says he asked the same question of his childhood friends from Slovenia last summer. "I told them to be real honest with me: have I changed? Everybody said 'no', so I'll take that as a compliment."
After a 12-3-0 start that saw them sitting on top of the Western Conference, the Kings have struggled on and off, and now find themselves too cloistered for their taste in the middle of the pack, entering Thursday night's games with 45 points (22-16-1). Just one point separated them from Phoenix for last place in the admittedly dynamic Pacific Division, where it's not out of the question that all five teams could make it into the eight Western playoff spots.
"We've been playing for 40, 45 minutes. But in the next 15 or 20, we just haven't always played our game, our system, our structure," Kopitar says. "We have to focus on 60 full minutes. This conference, it's just too good to take even one period off. You'll get burned, and we have lately."
Still, there is a lot to like about these Kings. They have four lines that are capable of scoring. Many hockey people believe their young defenseman, Drew Doughty, will be the best in the game before long. Young goalie Jonathan Quick is on the rise, and the big, skilled, mobile Kopitar is lining up 20 minutes a night at center ice.
Kopitar, who speaks five languages (Slovenian, Serbian, German, Swedish and English), shrugs off the intellectual-on-skates label, saying he's "pretty much all about hockey." But after informing a reporter of his interest in architecture, the field in which his grandfather worked, and being told that he might therefore enjoy the Ayn Rand classic The Fountainhead, Kopitar says, "I'll definitely check that out."
There is no sound of Hollywood phoniness in his words. But for all his aw-shucks modesty and genuinely friendly persona, Kopitar was not without awareness of his possible greatness as a hockey player even as a kid. It's how he learned English.
"His grandmother taught him," says Bob Miller, the Kings' Hockey Hall of Fame TV announcer. "He would pretend he was the No. 1 star in a game, and ask his grandma to interview him in English. He said he might need it some day."