Anze the face of the Kings

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:13 AM ET

LOS ANGELES -- Anze Kopitar isn't only making his mark on the ice.

Somewhere in the City of Angels, the Los Angeles Kings hotshot rookie centre is already being immortalized.

Cropping up around town is graffiti of his likeness, spreading the word of the city's newest sensation.

"I've seen pictures of it," said the teenager, whose first name is pronounced Ahn-jay, embarrassed by the unique attention. "It's a great feeling the fans enjoy watching me and really like me here. That's one good thing. If the fans like you, it's easier to play."

The artwork -- his face framed by a star outline, with Anze written beneath -- may seem bizarre.

But it can't be denied Kopitar, the pride of Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, is on his way to being the face of the Kings franchise.

Drafted 11th overall in 2005, the first player from his homeland to be selected, he's second only to Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in the rookie points race, with 30 in 35 games. He scored twice in the Kings' 5-3 loss to the Flames last night.

Throw in his excellent command of English, an ability to fire verbal volleys and respectful attitude, and you can understand why the Kings are so excited.

"He's a great, great kid," said Craig Conroy, who sits beside Kopitar in the dressing room. "He reminds me, the persona, is kinda like Jarome (Iginla): Nice, giving, doesn't hate anything, just comes to have fun.

"It's nice to sit next to him. Better than Avery."

Most importantly, though, is he can deliver on the ice. The son of Slovenia's national team coach, Kopitar was pegged to make the Kings roster last season but had to honour the second year of his contract in the Swedish Elite League.

That extra year of seasoning, after attending the Kings training camp, probably did him a world of good in his development but even Kopitar is surprised how well things have gone in his jump to the best league in the world.

"I didn't imagine to start off the year like I did. Now to do it consistent and I'm trying to do my best every night," said the 6-ft. 4-in., 220-lb. 19-year-old.

"This is my dream come true, so I'm having fun every single day. And we've started to play better, too, so it's more relaxed and a lot more fun."

Even better now, too, with his mother Mateja and 14-year-old brother Gasper with him for Christmas.

Though so young and so far from home, Kopitar may be living on his own but there are ways to prevent him from becoming homesick.

Second-year Los Angeles Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic is also from the country of two million, giving him a friend to meet up with or even just see around the Staples Center or the practice facility the clubs share.

"I usually go to see their games," said Kopitar. "I like basketball. I played basketball when I was younger, too. Hey, it's fun to watch the Lakers, they're a great team with some nice history. It's nice to get in the building and see the fans and how crazy they go."

Which, naturally, raises the question, who's the bigger story back in Slovenia?

"I'd say it's 50-50," he answered. "It was pretty big when I made the team. I sure hope more young kids start to play hockey because of that. I hope it's gonna bring hockey to a higher level."

Especially if he can grab the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.

Malkin may be the odds-on favourite but Kopitar's achievements are no less impressive.

Plus, as Conroy believes his team's flashy freshman is facing tougher competition on a regular basis.

"Take into account, we've got to play Anaheim, Dallas, San Jose 24 times, so let's not get focused on points," said Conroy, who's began marketing for his young teammate.

"I don't see a lot of guys killing those guys for points. Points aren't the only thing because the guys he has to play night in and night out are so good."


Videos

Photos