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Kings center Anze Kopitar raises the Stanley Cup as he floats across Lake Bled with family and friends.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times

The Kings' Anze Kopitar carries the Stanley Cup past a crowd of fans as he leaves the stage following a rally in his hometown of Hrusica.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

During a rally in his hometown of Hrusica, Kings center Anze Kopitar raises the Stanley Cup for thousands of fans.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Thousands gather to celebrate during Anze Kopitar's day with the Stanley Cup.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times

Anze Kopitar delivers the Stanley Cup to the gravesite of his beloved grandmother Fanci Kopitar at the Church of St. Michael in Dovje.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Anze Koptiar pauses to reflect after visiting the grave of his grandmother with the Stanley Cup.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Friends drink from the Stanley Cup during a small party at Kopitar's home in Bled.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times

Anze Kopitar celebrates his day with the Stanley Cup during a small party at his home in Bled with his girlfriend, Ines Dominc, and friend Nick Gismondi.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times

Anze Kopitar drinks from the Stanley Cup during a private party at his home in Bled.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Anze Kopitar carries the Stanley Cup toward the Church of the Assumption on the island in Bled, where visitors ring the church bell three times and make a wish. Kopitar said he once wished for a championship at the church.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Anze Kopitar cradles the Stanley Cup as he and his girlfriend, Ines Dominc, ride to a rally in his hometown of Hrusica.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Anze Kopitar shares a laugh with his brother Gasper as they tour the Stanley Cup throughout his home region of Jesenice, Slovenia.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times

The Stanley Cup sits high and dry in the garage of Anze Kopitar's boyhood home in Hrusica after a rainstorm briefly interrupted the festivities as friends and family took cover along with the cup.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Anze Kopitar walks the steep cobblestone walkway toward Bled Castle as he tours the Stanley Cup to various landmarks near his home in Slovenia.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Anze Kopitar raises the Stanley Cup as he boats across Lake Bled.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Cup keeper Phil Pritchard prepares to clean the Stanley Cup as the sun rises in Bled, Slovenia the morning after Kings center Anze Kopitar celebrated with it.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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The Stanley Cup visits Slovenia

By Robert Gauthier

There’s something satisfying about the Stanley Cup.

It’s perfectly proportioned to be handled, held and hoisted by triumphant men who once dreamed of that moment.

It’s a subliminal feast for the eyes and the soul.

Like Lord Stanley’s shapely trophy, the fledgling European country of Slovenia is easy to look at and deeply satisfying.  Steep and curvy, it glistens with shiny green hillsides and deep blue skies.

Hrusica, the boyhood home of Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, offers a surrealist backdrop for the cold, silver trophy as he brings it home for its first-ever visit to Slovenia. A village of modest homes with lush gardens, mom-and-pop shops and a bustling athletic field, it’s the place where Kopitar’s father, Matjev, and grandmother Fanci skated with him as a toddler on a patch of frozen grass, 8 feet by 20 feet.

With hockey’s holy grail in hand, Slovenia’s favorite son toured a few square miles of heaven on earth in a bus with a handful of close friends and family.  From the resort town of Bled, where vacationers blend in with the lush green and blue hues of summer, to nearby Dovje, where the classic stone architecture and finely carved gravestones of the Church of St. Michael anchor the village.  Kopitar, the cup and their entourage stopped briefly to take photos at numerous landmarks.

Wearing shorts, flip-flops and the black Kings jersey from the cup clinching Game 6, Kopitar was carrying along the unbridled joy that L.A. hockey fans are still feeling after 45 years of long odds and the faint hopes of a championship.  At 34.5 lbs., the Cup seemed weightless to him as he climbed steep cobblestone steps to Bled Castle, an ancient structure that overlooks Lake Bled.

Minutes later, the entourage paddled across the lake in a pletna boat, a wooden gondola powered by a one man and two oars.  A woman in a nearby kayak screeched, “Hey, there’s the Stanley Cup, turn around, I want to get closer!”   Another steep climb up ancient stairs and Kopitar was ringing a church bell three times and making a wish.  He claims he did the same thing long before winning the championship and would only imply that he was wishing for another championship.

Excited murmurs and polite applause echoed off the stone walls of the ornate church.  A mix of humility and pride washed over his face as he posed for pictures.  A friend whispered to him: This is pretty cool, huh?  “This is like Christmas and my birthday all wrapped together,” Kopitar answered.

As the day wore on, the tour bus squeezed itself through ancient streets designed for horses, delivering his entourage to a golf course, athletic fields and, finally, the cemetery at the Church of St. Michael in Dovje.

For the first time that day, the cup looked heavy in his arms as Kopitar slowly paced toward the grave of his beloved grandmother Fanci Kopitar, who recently died. She supported his dream to play hockey as a young boy. Fanci would skate and pass her toddler grandson pucks on their backyard rink.

Flanked by his grandfather, mother and father, Kopitar wept quietly as he knelt with the cup.

“I just thinks she deserves that moment,” he said. “Even though she’s not with us anymore.  I’m sure from somewhere she saw it and she enjoyed it just as much as I did.”

Clouds soon gathered and distant thunder turned to rain as the cup and its entourage settled in at the Kopitar household.  In the backyard, a small, rusting hockey goal sat on a rectangular plot of grass.  It’s where Matjaz Kopitar taught his 4-year-old son to skate and to handle a hockey stick. Later in the day, the proud father, who is now coaching the Slovenian national hockey team, beamed with pride as his son raised the cup in their backyard.

The rain turned to showers and a seed of doubt grew in the Kopitar camp that a rally of thousands might be canceled.  But, on this day, in this country, there were no extremes and the rain moved on, the sun cast a warm glow over Hrusica and the sounds of accordion music sent the entourage off in horse-drawn carriages to a throng of nearly 5,000 people.

The crowd pulsed as the cup was placed center stage. It was the first time ever the Stanley Cup was laid on Slovenian soil, and men, women and children filled every empty space, looking for a good angle for a photo.

According to tradition, the Stanley Cup is given to each player and coach of the championship team for 24 hours. What looks like an endless party is really a stop in this seemingly endless train of history.

Lord Stanley’s punch bowl comes from Canada’s soul. A touchstone for thousands of hockey players and millions of their fans.  Today, it touched scores more for the first time.

Hours later. Kopitar’s time with the cup was coming to its last minutes.  He stood in his living room with a small group of close friends.  A smile permanently tattooed to his face, he proudly tilted the cup and offered a drink from the holy chalice.

He gently lifted it for his younger brother, Gasper, also a hockey player who still has dreams of playing in the NHL.  Minutes later they were barefoot, dancing a traditional Slovenian dance together.

They were weightless.

Pure joy.

Filled with all the Stanley Cup has to offer.

Watch the video: Day for a King

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4 Comments

  1. July 11, 2012, 8:26 pm

    A lovely story about a terrific hockey player and a really good guy. Rave on, Anze.

    By: JOE
  2. July 12, 2012, 9:21 am

    Beautifuly written, Mr. Gauthier.

    By: Jan
  3. July 12, 2012, 10:54 am

    Some of the greatest sports photography I have ever seen. Moved me to tears.

    By: Jennie
  4. July 15, 2012, 8:09 am

    Lake Bled is one of my most favorite places in the world and I have fond memories of many visits there. These pictures are worth another trip. I definitely will be wearing a Kopitar T-shirt the next time I visit. On behalf of the entire Vadnal Family, we wish Anze congratulations on this amazing victory. Once again, Slovenija is on the map!

    By: Suzi Vadnal

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