Mike Altieri, vice president of communications and broadcasting with the Los Angeles Kings, started with the club in 1995. He got a great education in the ideal way a superstar player deals with the media and the community by watching Wayne Gretzky his first year on the job.
If there is one player who might surpass the Great One in being the ideal King in handling the fans and the press, it is Anze Kopitar.
“You have touched on a soft spot for me,” Altieri said, when I asked how he would describe what it’s like to work with Kopitar, the Kings’ top center who will play in his second Stanley Cup Final in the last three seasons Wednesday night at the Staples Center against the New York Rangers. “This has nothing to do with him as a player but more as a human being.”
And then, Altieri launched into a long list of the virtues of the man everyone around the Kings calls “Kopi.” (And for now, anyway, Kopi rolls off the lips of Los Angelenos more frequently than “Kobe.”)
He’s super smart, first off. Kopitar speaks five languages—Slovenian, Serbian, German, Swedish and English—fluently (he’s gotten a lot better with French too). His grandmother taught him English as a boy growing up in Slovenia. Why?
Because, as longtime Kings and Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Miller told SI.com’s Adrian Dater (wait, that’s me) in a 2011 story, “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.”
Maybe that might make Kopitar seem a bit cocky to the reader. Confident: yes. Arrogant, pretentious, full of himself: no.
“Kind, thoughtful, respectful, responsible, good-natured, proud, determined and competitive,” Altieri says, to describe Kopitar’s true persona. “Someone who can immediately put you at ease just by walking in the room with a smile and a greeting that says he is happy to be in your space.”
Sounds way too good to be true. Altieri, not a BSer, swears it isn’t.
“It’s authentic because that is how he was raised,” Altieri said. “He clearly believes that how you behave toward others defines who you are as a person. He is extremely loyal to his family, and that always comes first for him. He is also someone who understands his responsibilities and takes pride in fulfilling them.”
Responsibility: That’s the word that comes up a lot from people who talk about the 26-year-old center. He knows he is responsible for a whole lot in his life, from his extended family to his team and to his countrymen. He became the first player from Slovenia to play in the NHL in 2006, one year after being drafted 11th overall by the Kings (two picks after Ottawa selected, gulp, defenseman Brian Lee).
Kopitar helped lead the Kings to a Stanley Cup in 2012, tying teammate Dustin Brown for tops in playoff scoring (20 points in 20 games, but they both lost out in the Conn Smythe vote to goalie Jonathan Quick).
He is a finalist for the Selke Trophy, given to the league’s best defensive forward. He feels responsible at both ends of the ice, in other words. He’s a “200-foot player,” as Blues coach Ken Hitchcock would say.
He has helped lead his Kings to another Cup Final, and this time he might win the Conn Smythe if L.A. prevails, many believe. His 24 points in 21 games leads all NHL scorers. He’s a plus-nine in those 21 games and winning faceoffs at a 54.4 percent clip.
He is spookily reminiscent in style of former NHL superstar Peter Forsberg, with the same leftward, forward-leaning look at all times, always trying to pass first. He’s bigger than Forsberg, though, standing 6’3”, 224 pounds. He doesn’t lug the puck as long as Forsberg did either, which invited a lot of physical contact, but even if he does sometimes, guys just seem to bounce off Kopitar when they try to hit him.
Kopitar still doesn’t get the major publicity of recent Cup winners, such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane or, still, Sidney Crosby. But some believe he is the game’s best all-around player. One of them is his coach, Darryl Sutter, who last year told Kings Insider Jon Rosen:
He’s the best all-around centerman that I’ve coached, period. Period. Faceoffs, last minute, first minute, penalty killer. Plays against everybody’s top player, whether it’s a defenseman, a center, a checking role or an offensive role. He plays 20-plus minutes. Doesn’t take penalties. It’s the whole deal. He can play it whatever way we want. Do you want to come and get me? Come and get me...He can play it any way we want. And you know what? The best thing about Kopitar is he’s getting better. And when they do the comparisons with guys that are like that, there’s only a handful of them.
Kopitar still can’t quite cope with such gushing flows of praise his way.
“I don’t care about that (praise). It doesn’t matter. I’ve said it all along. It doesn’t matter except what you do on the ice, scoring goals, making big plays. That’s what it comes down to in the playoffs,” Kopitar told the Los Angeles Times’ Lisa Dillman.
Altieri said Kopitar is always one of the first to volunteer his time for team community activities. He particularly loves working with underprivileged kids, he said, and is very attentive to his younger brother, Gasper, who plays for the Ontario (California) Reign of the East Coast Hockey League.
Gasper has had a very difficult time with the expectations placed upon him just because of his last name. He even quit hockey for a while a few months ago because of the pressure but is giving it another shot. Anze’s family, including his brother, all live in the Los Angeles area and are extremely close. Anze and his wife, Ines, were married last year as well, so he has a lot of people close to him around his place of work.
All that responsibility—including the upcoming Final—doesn’t seem to be wearing Kopitar down in the slightest.
“He’ll be the same guy, no matter what,” Altieri said.
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL since 1995 for The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.