Kings center Anze Kopitar no longer has the distinction of being the only Slovenian player in the NHL, and he’s glad to have the company.
The Red Wings recently called up left wing Jan Mursak, a native of Maribor, Slovenia. Mursak replaced winger Dan Cleary, who suffered a broken ankle a few days ago.
Like Kopitar, who left home to play hockey in Sweden, Mursak had to leave to improve his hockey skills. Mursak played in the Czech League and the junior-level Ontario Hockey League and was drafted by Detroit in the sixth round in 2006. He has spent the last two seasons with the Red Wings’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Kopitar said he knew Mursak well and that they played together growing up. Kopitar is about five months older than Mursak.
“We played on a few national teams together. He’s actually a friend of mine,” Kopitar said after the Kings skated Wednesday morning in preparation for their game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena. “I know him. We’ve actually skated during the summer, too. A few times. He’s from the same hometown as my girlfriend.” That’s Maribor, the opposite side of the country from Kopitar’s hometown of Jesenice.
“I played against him all the time," Kopitar said. "We’re pretty much the same generation.”
But he said there weren’t many other Slovenians on a path to the NHL — except maybe Kopitar's younger brother, Gasper. “There’s a few good young players. I think it’s just a matter of making the right decision and sticking with it. That’s the only problem, I think,” Kopitar said.
That and the fact players must leave the country to advance their careers.
“They probably have to. If not juniors, they probably have to go somewhere in Sweden, Finland, maybe Czech or something so they can develop,” he said.
Incidentally, Kopitar’s father, Matjaz, is coaching Slovenia’s national team though he remains based in Los Angeles.
Speaking of national teams … Kings left wing Kyle Clifford had hoped to earn a place on Team Canada’s roster for the world junior championships last year but didn’t make the cut. He attended Canada’s summer camp in advance of the current tournament, but he’s watching it from afar because he’s busy establishing himself in the NHL as a physical and tireless player with a decent upside offensively.
“Plan A was to be here. If I wasn’t here, Plan B was to be in the world juniors,” he said. “Everything worked out like planned. I’m here now, and I’m happy. I wish them all the best.”
Kings Coach Terry Murray has become a huge Clifford booster.
“We all felt he should have been selected last year and he wasn’t, so we decided to keep him so they couldn’t have an opportunity to get him this year,” Murray joked. “I’m glad he hasn’t come and asked me if he could go. I would have been disappointed, actually.
“He’s making great strides here and he’s a great kid. It’s great to see the attitude that he brings every day to the practice — going to the rink early to get himself ready. Every game he’s on the first bus. He’s just a rink rat. He wants to play the game and play the right way, and he wants to become a very successful pro hockey player for a long time, and he’s doing all the right stuff with his respect for the game, for the veteran players.
“And he’s showing to us, the coaches, that he’ll do whatever it takes, put in the work, the time, to keep our trust and keep it going on the ice."
A few notes on goaltender Jonathan Quick, courtesy of broadcaster Nick Nickson:
Quick — who is scheduled to start Wednesday night -- is the first goalie in Kings history to record three road shutouts in one month (at Detroit Dec. 13, at Colorado Dec. 21 and at San Jose on Monday). The club record for shutouts in one month — home and road — is four, set by Felix Potvin in March 2001.
Only five King goalies have ever recorded three shutouts in one month: Potvin had four in March of 2001 and three in January 2002; Quick has three so far this month, Kelly Hrudey had three in March 1991, Rogie Vachon had three in February of 1977, and Gerry Desjardins had three in January 1969.
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-- Helene Elliott in Glendale, Ariz.