COLUMBUS, Ohio — Anze Kopitar is used to being the underdog. He comes from a country that has just seven arenas and considers a round-robin defeat of Slovakia at the Sochi Olympics as its most important hockey moment.
Now, thanks to a format change for the revamped World Cup of Hockey, Kopitar can dream of something bigger.
He is certain to be a centrepiece of the European all-star team that will compete at the event in September 2016 and believes he has a chance to lift a trophy at the end of it. As much as Kopitar has been proud to pull on a Slovenian hockey sweater in the past, the possibility of truly challenging the best hockey nations holds strong appeal for one of the NHL’s top players.
“The competition will probably be better if you put a strong team in Europe and come over and represent them,” said Kopitar. “There’s a lot of good players coming from Switzerland, coming from Slovakia. I guess for selfish reasons right now it would be a really cool experience to be a part of it.”
The thinking behind the idea is simple: How do you make the most competitive event?
Beyond the top six hockey nations — Canada, U.S., Sweden, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic — there is a significant dropoff in quality and depth. We have seen the Swiss and Slovaks (and even Kopitar’s Slovenians) pull off some great international moments, but they are almost always overmatched and looking for a miracle.
That should be different when the world’s best players gather in Toronto for the next World Cup. In addition to the traditional hockey powers, the event will feature a team made up of the best from the rest of Europe as well as a North American 23-and-under squad.
It represents an outside-the-box solution to hopefully avoiding lopsided results in the round-robin portion of the tournament — something routinely seen at the Olympics, world juniors and IIHF World Hockey Championship — as well as a novel way to include the best the NHL has to offer.
The most important thing? The players have whole-heartedly embraced the idea.
“I would say if it was 10 years ago it would be upsetting because 10 years ago we had a lot of guys in the NHL,” said Slovak goalie Jaroslav Halak. “Right now, we’ve got maybe 12. So that would be tough to make a team out of 12 guys. Obviously you need 20. It will be different to see, but at the same time I’m open to it.
“It would be nice to play with some other players from different countries.”
The NHL is still deciding who will be in charge of selecting and coaching the European all-star team. That should be finalized in the near future.
One obvious candidate is Kopitar’s father, Matjaz, who coaches the Slovenian national team.
That country is experiencing a recent hockey boon thanks in large part to the success of Kopitar’s Los Angeles Kings — he’s hosted two epic Stanley Cup parties in Ljubljana — and the unexpected success in Sochi.
“For us, I think a big win was just to qualify for that (event),” said Kopitar. “Then it was just a bonus being there and playing against Russia, playing against Sweden in quarter-finals. Who would have thought? But we did.
“There’s 20 guys that played hard,” he added. “We made it happen as a team. There was no individuals on that team.”
Soon he will carry his country’s flag on a team capable of winning an international tournament.
The long-term plan for the World Cup is to eventually return it to a competition featuring solely national teams, with a European qualifying tournament rounding out the field every four years. Ultimately, this is about growing the sport.
The NHL and NHLPA did plenty of due diligence prior to finalizing the new World Cup format change for 2016. The enthusiasm of those affected by the changes — players like Kopitar — helped convince them it was an idea worth pursuing.
“I think the guys are trying to make it competitive and the best possible tournament that it can be,” said Kopiar. “Just the thought of being a part of the World Cup would be a very fun experience. I think it’ll be pretty cool.”