SOCHI, Russia – Slovenia wasn’t exactly a favorite to make the Olympic hockey quarterfinals in Sochi.
“Everyone expected us to be the last team in the Olympics,” said forward David Rodman.
Yet, here they are, prepared to face Sweden on Wednesday.
They had never appeared in an men's hockey Olympic tournament before, and were the lowest-ranked team headed to Sochi. Their roster features one NHL star in Anze Kopitar and three guys named "Ziga.” They didn’t even look the part: In an event filled with the iconic colors on hockey sweaters, theirs could be confused for a club hockey team of Seattle Seahawks fans.
“We [would have been] happy with one point before the tournament,” said defenseman Sabahudin Kovacevic, who scored in the 4-0 win over Austria in Tuesday’s qualification round.
“But now, we’re going for a gold medal.”
Hell, why not? Slovenia’s players are already convinced they're in the midst of their own small-scale Miracle on Ice.
“It was almost a miracle to come to the Olympics,” said forward Ziga Jeglic, the slender 25 year old playing at a point-per-game pace. “We were nervous before the Austria game, because we knew we were the same level of hockey. It was just a good performance today. A dream come true. A miracle.”
Goalie Robert Kristan, a former KHL goalie who made 30 saves in the win over Austria, had no other answer: “I don't know, let's say it is a miracle, because this is really amazing. Small Slovenia, playing in the quarterfinal of the Olympic Games?”
How small? Slovenia’s player pool is roughly 150 professional players.
“Well, we’ve got 25 really good ones,” said Anze Kopitar, the team’s lone NHL representative from the Los Angeles Kings.
Slovenia has seven pro rinks back home, and two of them don’t have a roof. "I wish we could get five more ice rinks,” said Slovenia coach Matjaz Kopitar, father of the team’s star center. “I want to see more ice rinks. I want to see more organizations going on, this is the message to the people."
That humble origin helped Slovenia come to Sochi with a “nothing to lose” mindset. They surprised the Russians by hanging with them in a 5-2 loss. They earned their first-ever Olympic victory against Slovakia, 3-1, last Saturday.
“I guess now that we have beaten Slovakia maybe they’re not going to mix us up anymore,” joked Kopitar after the win.
They were blown out by the U.S., 5-1, in their final prelim, a game that Kopitar left because he was ill. But they followed that with the win over Austria, punching their ticket to meet top seeded Sweden on Wednesday.
“Three days ago they said the win against Slovakia was the biggest in Slovenia’s history. Now I think it’s this,” said Kovacevic.
The players celebrated like it was, mobbing Kristan after the final horn sounded, skates flying off the ice as the players leaped on top of him near his cage.
As the Slovenians left that pile and went to the postgame handshake line against Austria, Anze Kopitar turned around and gave each of them a bump with his glove.
None of them have his pedigree – NHL stardom and a Stanley Cup ring. All of them will join him as surprise participants in the Olympic quarterfinals.
Does he buy the “miracle” talk?
“Yeah, I think so. It’s obviously a huge accomplishment for us and for hockey in Slovenia. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of this,” he said.
Kopitar said it’s the culmination of a slow build to success for Slovenia.
“I think we have to go back a little bit too. The guys have done a tremendous job the last 3-4 years,” he said. “Yesterday I was talking to a certain someone that knows a lot about the game of hockey. He said he’s been following us the last couple of years and he said we’ve done tremendous work, and it’s a huge jump from where we were five years ago.
That “certain someone” was Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman.
“To hear that from a guy like that is unbelievable," said Kopitar.
Win or lose against the Swedes, the Slovenians earned the attention of their fans back home and the global hockey community. And if this “Slovenderella" run sparks interest in hockey back home that the players hope it will, their first Olympic appearance won’t be their last.
But as long as they’re in Sochi, Team Slovenia is eager to see how far they can keep living the dream.
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” said Rodman of the Swedes. “We just wanna play our system well. Make as few mistakes as we can, capitalize on our chances and work our ass off.”
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- Anze Kopitar