OQ: Back to where it all once began
"It was actually my first official tournament for our senior national team," said Anze Kopitar on his only previous appearance at a Final Olympic Qualification tournament playing for Slovenia. "I was 17 at the time, we played in Riga, Latvia and we did not qualify, but it was a good start for me."
It was February 2005 and back then Slovenia ended up with two points with Latvia booking a place to Turin 2006.
Kopitar, who earlier that same season had moved north to Sodertalje in Sweden, was then at the start of what was going to be a magnificent upward trajectory which a few months later saw him being picked eleventh overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
Now riding high and heading into his eleventh straight season with the Kings, Kopitar has been instrumental in their success, lifting the Stanley Cup twice and being an invaluable leader in both offensive and defensive duties. Having signed up for another eight years with the California franchise earlier this year and recently been named team captain might make him a King for life, but his heart will always beat for Slovenia.
Now back at where it all once began, Kopitar has made his return to play for his country at the Final Olympic Qualification tournament, Group D in Minsk.
Slovenia, who arrived to the Belarusian capital touted as dark horses, has seen their stock rise during the course of the week. They first saw off Poland, 6-1, courtesy of a Kopitar hat trick before blanking the highly-rated Danes 3-0 thanks to a rock-solid defence and being deadly on the break.
Now only hosts Belarus stand in the way for Slovenia's second consecutive Olympic ticket, as the Central Europeans once again look to upset the odds against the hosting nation, just like at the Final Olympic Qualification in Vojens, Denmark in February 2013.
When Slovenia back then sealed qualification for Sochi 2014, Kopitar was in full flight with his ongoing season in the NHL. But with family honours being represented by his father Matjaz and younger brother Gaspar, head coach and player respectively on the Slovenian team, Anze was doing his best to settle his nerves over in Tennessee at the time of that fateful encounter between Slovenia and Denmark, where a win would mean a historical first Olympic appearance for his country.
"I remember to this day how we had a day off with the team in Nashville, and I actually went to play golf just so I wasn't going to watch the scores all the time," he recalled.
"In the past if there were World Championships or so and I was watching scores, something usually didn't go right, so I just wanted to stay away, but as soon as I knew the game was going to be over I checked the scores. At that time I already had received a bunch of text messages so I figured it was all positive."
Joining up with the Slovenian team for Sochi 2014, Kopitar can look back at a wonderful memory during a couple of winter weeks at the Black Sea which he will cherish forever.
"Coming from a small country you don't know if you are going to make it back to the Olympics. We went to Sochi being very relaxed without a whole lot of expectations, but at the same time we also knew that we were going there to play hockey and definitely not embarrass ourselves," he said.
"We played hard and with a lot of heart and making it to the quarter-finals was a great accomplishment to us and overall it was a very nice experience."
Now being on the verge of achieving Olympic glory once again, it is Belarus on their home patch standing in Slovenia's way. With Kopitar present on the ice this time around, they hope to stage another upset as the two top-ranked teams of Group D face each other for a place in PyeongChang 2018.
"We have to play to our very best and then we have a chance against pretty much any team at this level," said Kopitar.
"I think our game against Denmark was a pretty good example for us. They had arguably one of the best teams they put together, but we were competitive and playing hard and that is going to be the key against Belarus."
The game at 17:00 local time (16:00 CET) can be watched live through the national broadcasters and for all other fans on the live stream provided by the Olympic Channel.
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