After taking a look at Latvian hockey, we’ll now examine another newcomer to the Olympic stage: Slovenia. Most hockey fans are familiar with Anže Kopitar, but there is much more to Slovenian hockey than just the Los Angeles Kings forward.
Slovenia is a small southern Central European country bordering Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary. The nation boasts a population of about 2 million inhabitants, 943 of which play hockey. Within the top 25 IIHF rankings, that number is second lowest after Lithuania. The national team currently sits 17th in the IIHF rankings.
The team has been controlled by the Ice Hockey Federation of Slovenia since the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, officially joining the IIHF on May 6, 1992. The team nickname is Risi, which translates in English to the Lynx. Their first international game was a 1-0 lose to Austria on March 20, 1992 in Klagenfurt.
The team is currently coached by Matjaž Kopitar, father of Anže and Gašper Kopitar. Leading Slovenia to its first Olympic birth, he’s been the most successful coach in the nation’s history and is the first Slovenian-born coach of the team since 2003, when Matjaž Sekelj was the man behind the bench.
Five Slovenians have been drafted into the NHL. The aforementioned Anže Kopitar and Jan Muršak are the only two to ever appear in an NHL game. Kopitar is hands down the most successful player to come out of the small European country. He was drafted 11th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft and became the first Slovenian to play in the NHL in 2006. Kopitar quickly blossomed into one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive players and is now an integral part of the Kings. Through his first 548 games, Kopitar has scored 499 points, nearly good for a point per game. “Kopi” once again made history when he helped the Kings capture the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history in 2012. His younger brother Gašper is also a professional hockey player, playing for Mora IK of HockeyAllsvenskan, the second tier league of Sweden.
Muršak’s stint in the NHL was a brief one. The winger was drafted 182nd overall by the Detroit Red Wings in 2006. After spending a few seasons in the AHL,
Muršak made his NHL debut on December 28, 2010. His NHL career was cut short due to nagging injuries. In total, Muršak played in 46 games, notching two goals and two assists. He currently plays for Amur Khabarovsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. He and the Kopitars will be key contributors for Team Slovenia in Sochi.
Another promising Slovenian talent is goaltender Luka Gračnar. He was even on the radar of some NHL scouts prior to the 2013 draft. The only Slovenian goalie to be selected in the NHL Draft is Jure Penko, who was chosen 203rd overall in 2000 by the Nashville Predators. However, Penko never actually played a game in the NHL. Gračnar currently plays for EC Salzburg of the EBEL, where his team sits at the top of the standings. At only 20 years old, Gračnar still has plenty of potential and a high ceiling. He will be another important component for Slovenia during the Olympics if he can beat out Robert Kristan and Andrej Hocevar for the starting spot.
Slovenia is the only nation ranked in the top 22 to never have its junior team play in the Championship division. However, they have had much better success at the senior level. Playing in the top division in the World Championship, they’ve twice placed 13th (in 2002 and 2005). Most recently, they’ve won the Division 1 A World Championship in 2012. Of course, their biggest triumph was qualifying for the 2014 Olympics.
Being ranked outside the top 9, Slovenia had to win a Final Olympic Qualification tournament consisting of Belarus, Denmark, and Ukraine. Demark was the favorite followed by Belarus. In spite of that, Slovenia opened the tournament with a 4-2 over Belarus followed by a 2-1 win over Denmark, to complete their unlikely Olympic birth.
Following Slovenia’s tournament victory, national team forward David Rodman said, “I am speechless. Nobody expected this from us, we came here as the third-ranked team. We have beaten both the favorites and we are going to the Olympics.”
Whatever happens in Sochi, no one can take away this incredible accomplish for Slovenian hockey. Matjaž Kopitar calls the feat “a great success, not only for our sport, but for our nation.”