TORONTO – Anze Kopitar hasn’t won over Team Europe’s players as captain with any ‘rah-rah’ type speeches. That’s simply not the way he operates.
Ultimately the big Slovenian has helped the players gel with a hard work ethic and a low-key and humorous ‘no worries’ attitude that has permeated throughout the room. This has provided somewhat of a window into what his leadership style will be like when he returns to the Los Angeles Kings after this tournament where he will assume the role of captain for the first time in his NHL career.
“There’s so much off ice immeasurable intrinsic value to having him as a captain that it’s difficult for me to summarize it in words,” Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger said earlier in the World Cup. “It’s the feeling you have and the energy he gives off and the consistency to who he is as a person. There’s no up, no down – just plows through it and is so selfless in his play. We were laughing today about his minutes again where I said, ‘We’ll get you down in Game 2 in the minutes’ and suddenly he was a minute more. I don’t know how that happened, he doesn’t know how it happened. All the nice off-ice talk, it’s on the ice too where he backs it up. He backs up everything he says. He backs up everything he does consistently and it’s just another one of the many treats I have as a coach right now is working together with him.”
Since it was announced Team Europe – a group of Europeans not from Sweden, Finland, Russia or the Czech Republic – would partake in this World Cup, it was unclear how the team would bond.
Through the first three games it appears the squad has taken Kopitar’s laid-back lead and adopted it as their persona.
This was on display after Europe beat Team USA 3-0 in the tournament opener. As the clock wound down a mic’d up Kopitar was caught saying “we fooled them all, boys” referring to how Europe was drubbed by Team North America in pre-tournament games and looked like a group that wouldn’t win a World Cup contest. While other squads have felt the stress and pressure of playing for their national teams, Kopitar has taken this tournament and the Team Europe concept in stride. Europe finished pool play at 2-1-0 an made it to the semifinal. They will face Sweden on Sunday for a chance to make the World Cup final series.
“I think his leadership style, my sense the few weeks we’ve been together is that he’s a great person. He’s a great player, but he’s an even better person,” forward Thomas Vanek said. “He doesn’t have to make a big speech or anything. We all know what kind of player he is and you get to meet him off the ice and he’s a better person than a player so I think if you have that then you’re going to be just fine.”
During the offseason the Kings announced they would take the captain’s ‘C’ away from Dustin Brown – who led the organization to two Stanley Cups – and give it to Kopitar. The move made some sense since Brown’s role had been marginalized in recent years and Kopitar has been one of the NHL’s brightest stars for quite some time. But there were questions on how the decision would work out. Kopitar has been an alternate with the Kings, but never the unquestioned leader of the group. Also, Kopitar is known as a more easygoing voice than the intense Brown.
Even though it’s easy to dismiss the Team Europe concept for the World Cup, dealing with a team of players from different countries with star egos thrown together and asked to beat the best hockey playing nations in the world is no simple task. Teamwork and locker room cohesion is a big part of hockey and the captain plays a role in trying to get everyone on the same page. This is where Kopitar has excelled for Europe, even if he has been held pointless so far in the tournament.
“He has been such an example on and off the ice from Day One and we knew in the short time we had to prepare for this we needed strong leadership in the room to lead by example and he has been leading the charge. He has a calm to him that’s very comforting to the team and to the players around him,” Krueger said. “There’s a lot of good conversation going on in the group when we’re not around. I can sense it just by the group’s dynamic and just how they’ve come together.”
Even if Europe’s run gets stopped by Sweden, Kopitar has proved an able captain for this team. While he still hasn’t worn the ‘C’ for the Kings, it’s at least a good sign that he can set a similar, successful tone will be set in LA’s room
“He’s not the biggest talker off the ice like that, but you can see he’s a leader, he has confidence and he expects a lot out of guys, not that he says something specifically,” forward Frans Nielsen said. “What I remember from him from this is the way he plays. Yeah, he’s a World Class player but he still backchecks 200 feet, he still blocks shots, he still does all the little things and that’s not always you see star players like that do that, but he does it every night and that’s for sure the thing I’m going to remember about him.”
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