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Anze Kopitar face of Team Europe

Forward from Slovenia perfect captain for World Cup finalist

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- The video played on the massive screens over the ice at Air Canada Centre on Sunday, the perfect preamble to Team Europe's 3-2 overtime victory against Team Sweden in the semifinals of the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

It told the story of Anze Kopitar. He grew up in Slovenia, a nation in central Europe with about 2 million people, about 1,000 players and seven indoor rinks. He dreamt of playing in the NHL, something no Slovenian had ever done, and it seemed ridiculous. When he wrote it down in a journal, his own grandmother crossed it out, saying he wasn't that gifted.

Looking for tougher competition, knowing he needed it to be the best he could be, he moved to Sweden at age 16. Not only did he make the NHL, he became one of the best players in the world, a two-time winner of the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings, a winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward.

But he never forgot about Slovenia, playing for his country in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, playing for his country to qualify for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, returning in the summer to work with kids and inspire them to dream like he did.

Video: EUR@SWE: Kopitar discusses spirited 3-2 OT win

The story of Anze Kopitar represents the story of Team Europe. It is why the team was created. It is why Kopitar was selected as captain. It is why the executives, coaches and players relish the opportunity to play Team Canada in the best-of-3 final starting Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, CBC, TVA Sports), when virtually no one else gives them a chance, maybe not even their own grandmothers.

What has to go right for Team Europe to win?

"Everything?" Kopitar said, responding with a question, as if unsure everything would be enough. "There's no secret to it. They pretty much bull-rushed through everybody right to the finals, and we're going to have to play our very best. There can't be an area where we can't be good at. So we're going to have to play a solid game."

So what?

"We're certainly going to try," Kopitar said. "We're certainly not going to come in and be ready to lose two games."

When the NHL and the NHL Players' Association decided to resurrect the World Cup, they wanted to make sure they had the best players -- all the best players, not just the best players from eight hockey nations. They wanted to find a way to include a player like Kopitar.

So they created Team Europe of Europeans from outside the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden. They also created Team North America of players 23 or younger from Canada and the United States. Instead of six strong hockey nations and two weaker ones, they now had eight strong teams, making the field the most competitive ever.

Video: USA@EUR: Kopitar mic'd up says we fooled them all...

Kopitar has been the face of Team Europe since the official World Cup announcement at the 2014 All-Star Game in Columbus, when he sat on stage with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr and stars from bigger countries.

When he was named captain, coach Ralph Krueger said it was important the captain came from a country with only one player on the team, because Team Europe was about developing the game, expanding our horizons and representing more than 200 million people for whom hockey is not a main sport.

This is a man who loves to play for his country but also wasn't afraid to leave it to make himself better and achieve his goals.

This is a man who left an expectant wife at home in Los Angeles; flew to Minsk, Belarus, to play for Slovenia in an Olympic qualifying tournament; had three goals and two assists to make sure Slovenia would be in PyeongChang even though it is uncertain whether NHL players will be; and then came to play for Team Europe in this tournament before returning to L.A. to assume the captaincy of the Kings.

It's best-on-best, and he's one of the best. He deserves to be here. He wants to be here. He has led Team Europe's forwards in ice time each game, playing no less than 20:39 and as much as 23:53, with three assists in four games.

"I think for us certainly Anze Kopitar is the centerpiece of all of this," Krueger said. "Anze is the leader, no question about it, of this team, of our confidence level, of the calm that's in our room, of the smiles we have had all through this. He's that kind of a guy. He knows when it's on and when it's off, and he does a good job influencing and setting the tone of the room."

In Sochi, Slovenia defeated Slovakia 3-1 and Austria 4-0, but lost to Russia 5-2, lost to the United States 5-1 and lost to Sweden 5-0. 

Video: SWE@EUR: Kopitar seals win for Team Europe

Here, Team Europe has defeated Team USA 3-0 and Team Czech Republic 3-2 in overtime, as well as Team Sweden. Team Europe has allowed Kopitar and his teammates to do things they have never been able to do before, impressing everyone, including the Great One.

"I think as far as Team Europe goes, we didn't know what to expect, we didn't know how that would all come together, and obviously their coaching staff did a really wonderful job of putting together a nice group of players," Wayne Gretzky said. "Anze is really a top-notch player. I rate him in the top five players in the NHL, so he's been a terrific leader of that group. I'm happy for them."

Of course, Team Europe has lost to Team Canada 4-1 too. But now it has another shot. You never know what can happen when you go for it.

At the end of the video before the game Sunday, Kopitar sat on the bench with a kid at a rink in Slovenia. He asked the kid what he wanted to be when he grew up. The kid said he wanted to play in the NHL, then skated onto the ice as Kopitar smiled.

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