As a winter-sports haven, Slovenia is home to its share of alpine, cross-country and ski-jumping stars. But when it comes to hockey, the ranks thin quickly.
“The way it is, we have 145 registered players, but to play on the level that you have to play to qualify for the Olympics, you can really pick and choose a team from 25 or 30 guys,” says Anze Kopitar, the Slovenian-born star of the Los Angeles Kings. “So the coach, my dad, doesn’t have a whole lot of choices.”
Miracles on ice come in many shapes and sizes, and one of the most heartening came last month when the fathers of two Kings players – Matjaz Kopitar, Anze’s dad, and Ted Nolan, Jordan Nolan’s dad – helped a couple of hockey-playing minnows, Slovenia and Latvia, qualify for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Latvia eliminated Kazakhstan, France and Britain. Slovenia took out Denmark, Belarus and Ukraine.
While Latvia has made it to the Olympics before, this is a first for Slovenia, and for Kopitar, who will play for his country, assuming the NHL permits its players to go to Sochi.
Kopitar grew up in a hockey family, and his story mirrors that of any number of Canadian players. He learned to skate in a backyard rink at 4. At 16, showing great promise, he moved to Sweden to develop in a more competitive environment. He was playing there when the Kings chose him 11th overall in the 2005 entry draft.
When the Olympic qualifying tournament took place this year, he was too nervous to do anything more than follow the results online. Only after Slovenia qualified did he contact his dad, and consider what the victory meant for a country still trying to develop a hockey culture.
“Of course it matters,” Kopitar said. “It’s probably the biggest sporting event in the world, so hopefully we can get [an agreement] done, and hopefully we’ll be able to play there.
“For me, you’re watching the Olympics and you’re dreaming of being a part of it once at some point. It might be my one and only chance, you never know, so it’s definitely a big thing.”
Ted Nolan is a more familiar figure to NHL audiences, and won the 1997 Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year. His Latvians were the top seed in their qualifying group and the only favourites to advance. Jordan Nolan said he and Kopitar haven’t talked much about the unique coincidence.
“Obviously, he knew my dad was coaching and I knew his dad was coaching, and we’re both pretty proud of our fathers,” Nolan said. “It’s pretty cool to have two dads in the same dressing room that will be coaching in the Olympics.
“Hopefully, I can get over there next year and watch some games. And Kopi, I’m sure he’ll be playing for his father.”
Sadly, Nolan can’t get Latvian citizenship in time to play for his father.
“I don’t think so,” he said with a laugh. “If I could, I would. That would be quite the experience.”
Kopitar and Nolan play for coach Darryl Sutter, who knows something about keeping it all in the family. Altogether, four of the Sutter brothers – Brian, Darryl, Duane and Brent – coached in the NHL following their playing careers, and every one of them had a son come through the ranks. Brent’s son, Brandon, plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Darryl’s son Brett plays in the Carolina Hurricanes’ system.
Kopitar is considered one of the most complete players in the NHL, because of his offensive gifts and his defensive awareness. How much of that is the result of being the son of a coach? Sutter says that’s part of it, but not all of it.
“It’s not just a coach’s son thing, Kopi is just a detail guy,” Sutter said. “He wants to know what’s going on. Even when you’re practising, he’s the first guy that comes to you and asks ‘what’s the drill?’ I always get him to start the drill.
“It’s part of being the environment. It’s no different than kids being around the rinks with their dads. You see a difference in them. They understand what’s going on. I tell these guys, ‘bring your kids to the rink.’ I like to see the kids here. The greatest experience they can have is being around the team, because they absorb it.”
Growing up in the Nolan household, Jordan says his father struck just the right balance.
“He’s not a huge hockey guy away from the rink,” Nolan said of his father. “He just talks about normal things and doesn’t harp on the game too much. But in other situations, when I need help with the game or need help focusing, he’ll definitely help out. But he knows when to talk – and when not to – so it’s definitely a good thing.”
The Kings are in Vancouver Saturday, where their run to the 2012 Stanley Cup championship began last spring, and they are back on track after a slow start, having won seven of their last eight games to move into a five-way tie for sixth place in the Western Conference standings.
Of late, Kopitar has really been running it up, with seven points in his last three games. He had a knee injury coming out of the lockout that forced him to miss the first game of the season, and he needed time to get his conditioning back, and to adjust to a brace that he wears now.
The Kings are far more competitive than the Slovenes will be at the Olympics.
“If I’m not mistaken, we’re with the Slovaks, the Americans and the Russians,” Kopitar said. “We’ve lost to the Slovaks a couple of years ago at the world championships and it was only by one goal. The biggest thing is just getting there, but knowing our guys, you don’t go there to get [routed]. We’re going to try our best and try to win a game and cause some havoc and make the other team bring it and not just cruise through us.”