Anze one slick Slovenian

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:33 AM ET

HALIFAX -- Anze Kopitar was 17 years old when he first skated on the ice at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Innsbruck in the NHL lockout year of 2005.

"It was awesome," he said.

"I remember my first face-off. I faced Mike Modano," said the only NHL player in the history of Slovenia.

The nation Canada faces here today is a country with only seven sheets of ice and only "a bit more than 100 adult hockey players - incomparable numbers to the elite countries, wouldn't you say?" according to the delightfully written Slovenia tournament fact book which adds "our coaches have to choose among 40 players in total."

Today, 20 of them will take the ice here against players, most of whom are household names in Canada.

Kopitar is the only one anybody has ever heard of from Slovenia.

Now fully blossoming into an NHL star with the Los Angeles Kings, Kopitar's debut year at the world championships in 2005 was a long time ago.

"I was wearing a full cage. I was 17," he said.

Canada beat Slovenia 8-0 in that game.

Kopitar is not exactly guaranteeing victory this time.

"Hopefully we can keep it down to five goals, maybe," he said.

"We don't have a lot of guys to choose from. We have to make it fun and enjoy this as much as we can. When you play Canada, that's a fun day for everybody.

"Playing Canada doesn't happen every day. We have nothing to lose. Everybody expects us to lose, or maybe I should say, everybody expects for Canada to win," he said.

CARRY THE TEAM

Kopitar says he doesn't feel like has to carry the team against Canada or the USA in the first two games, but hopes he can do that in the third game against Latvia with the loser likely headed to the relegation round.

"I think we have a chance to avoid relegation this year. Latvia is the game to win."

Avoid relegation and it would be massive for hockey in the nation which was formerly part of Yugoslavia. Kopitar would go home a hero. Then again, he does anyhow.

"I get recognized a lot. In shopping centres. Everywhere. It's kind of strange," said the 20-year old who already has 52 goals, 86 assists and 138 points in two seasons with the L.A. Kings and isn't much recognized anywhere outside the rink there.

In the aforementioned Slovenia fact book, it reported that Kopitar, the son of one of the team coaches who grew up with a Canadian-style backyard rink, is "happily occupied by Slovenian top model Ines."

That is true, he says. Very happily occupied.

"We met at the world junior championship," he said of the second level or B-pool tournament which was held in Ljublijana.

"She was there. It was a great tournament in all ways."

Kopitar will face two of his L.A. teammates, Dustin Brown and Patrick O'Sullivan on Team USA Sunday. Today he faces Kings' assistant coach Mike Johnston.

"He's a star player," says Johnston, a veteran of seven world championships. "If you are looking for a player to build a team around, he's that kind of guy. He's a key guy to what we're trying to put together in L.A. He's already capable of dominating games. He has size, poise and maturity."

Kopitar's goal of holding Canada to five goals?

"Don't believe him. He's going to go out and try and control and dominate the game," said Johnston

Canadian captain Shane Doan sees a lot of the young Slovenian playing against him with the Phoenix Coyotes.

"He's big and strong and he has a great shot. Even though you have guys on him, he's capable of beating them. He creates space for the guys he plays with."

HITCHCOCK RAVES

Coach Ken Hitchcock raves about the kid.

"He's an awfully good player. A lot of people talk about a lot of young players in the game, but he's the real deal. He's the perfect mix of finesse and strength. He has great feet and great hands. And he has size and poise to go with it."

He's the whole package, all right. You just wonder how in heck he ever came out of Slovenia.

At the IIHF World Hockey Championships, Anze Kopitar, is definitely what you'd call a one-man team.


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