A year and a half ago, on a whim, we decided to make a rather drastic change at Jewels from the Crown, and it's perhaps my favorite thing we've ever done on the blog: Dragulji iz Krone. In short, we switched from the Los Angeles Kings to Slovenia for the duration of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and we were amazed by both Slovenia's performance and by the fans from Slovenia who we interacted with.
Of course, long before that, Anze Kopitar had already found his way into our hearts. And long before THAT, he'd found his way into Slovenia's heart. How much has Kopitar influenced the sport in his home country since he burst onto the scene? Let's revisit the humble nation of Slovenia and find out.
Starting with the obvious: Slovenia is not a large country. For that reason, there's kind of a cap on just how many players can come up through the Slovenian ranks. One oft-cited fact during the 2014 Olympics was that Slovenia held a grand total of seven ice rinks, two of which were outdoors. My research tells me that there are currently ten -- though my research comes with the caveat of being based on a single website -- which is some nice growth, but doesn't allow for a juggernaut of a youth program.
Having said that, since Anze Kopitar was drafted into the NHL in 2005, there's been a noticeable increase in the number of hockey players in Slovenia. This tremendously thorough article outlines the numbers below, but we'll show you how the other oft-cited fact from 2014 -- "Slovenia has about 150 registered hockey players" -- continues to evolve. First, the number of registered adult players:
Registered Senior Players in Slovenia
However, the total has fluctuated quite a bit, and an increase in the number of adult players can't really be attributed to Anze Kopitar, right? Fortunately, the totals for the younger crowd lends a stronger case... specifically, for the under-10 "toddler" category.
Under-10 Hockey Players in Slovenia
There's an absolutely massive jump from the low point in 2005-06, which was the year Kopitar was drafted. I'm certainly not trying to argue that Kopitar caused 154 additional kids to sign up for hockey in 2010, but I don't think there's any question that some parents in the last decade noticed a Slovenian superstar in the NHL.
Number of players is one thing; number of good players is another thing. Slovenia's still struggling to establish itself as a bona fide hockey contender, and it was relegated from the top division of the World Championships this year. However, Kopitar and his father set a goal of qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics...
Apparently I got mentioned at the opening ceremony last night... Hopefully one day we will make it to the Olympics ourselves! #ifeelslovenia— Anze Kopitar (@AnzeKopitar) July 28, 2012
... and met it. Then they won some games and finished seventh. With so many established powers, maybe that finish was a fluke, but it was a sea change for Slovenian hockey. Now, success is an expectation, and it all started with the first player to achieve significant success overseas.
More than participation or success, though, Kopitar's success has brought an undeniable increase in Slovenia's attention to the game abroad.
It was most visible during the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, especially after Kopitar scored the game-winning goal in Game 1 and prompted wild celebrations in his homeland. Check out this video from a Slovenian fan at the 3 AM watch party for Game 4:
1500 people! In a nation of 2 million! In the dead of night!
We've been lucky to witness so many special moments in Kopitar's career, and Slovenia has followed and pushed him every step of the way. Media coverage, enormous welcome-home celebrations, and even musical tributes have shown just how much this nation has fallen in love with this player. And that is the kind of thing that ensures hockey is not just a passing fad, but a fixture, in Slovenia.