As a popular NHL defenseman, especially during the ’90s, and having played some 15 years in the league, Darius Kasparaitis has a lot of things to say about his career. In this two-part article, Darius Kasparaitis talks about his first steps in life and hockey, his move to the NHL, and some players he played with and against.
* For the original Sport-Express article by Igor Rabiner, click here.
First Steps in Hockey
“I was born in Elektrenai, Lithuania, a small town of some 10.000 people where my parents still live today. Lithuania was absolutely a non-hockey place. I skated for the first time when I was eight, and five years later I was still trying to learn how to properly stop and turn left. I remember that I’d been given a pair of figure skates where the toe picks were removed… I can’t believe myself that with such conditions I, a Lithuanian, could become the player with the most games at Olympic Tournaments for Team CIS and Russia. If [Ilya] Kovalchuk and [Pavel] Datsyuk will keep on playing until 2018, they can reach me. Hopefully, they won’t be playing (laughs). I’m joking, of course.
“I loved it. We had the only ice rink in the Lithuanian SSR and I would go there at seven A.M. when there was no one around. I hated getting up at that time, but I just went there and worked, worked, worked… There was another guy. He got noticed and invited to play for Sokol Kiev, it was a good team at that time. It was some good stimuli for me… how come, they picked up that guy and they didn’t pick me?!?
“And then, when I was 13, our team played a game against our peers from Moscow Dynamo, who were in a camp in Lithuania. After the game, the great [Soviet defenseman, 1972 Summit Series player] Valeri Vasilyev, a little drunk, I won’t hide it, told me: “Do you want to play for Dynamo?” “I want” – I replied. “Therefore you’re in.”
“The next summer they called me and I moved there. Before that, I had been invited to play for Dinamo Minsk, but I didn’t like it and I rushed back home. And I wore the jersey number six in honor of Vasilyev, who noticed me first. In the NHL I wore the #11 because of [former NBA player] Arvydas Sabonis, the idol of Lithuania. At the first practices, the guys were very surprised to see me. A Lithuanian? Playing hockey? They made me understand that I was considered “different”. They nicknamed me “Hans” [Note: a bit of an ethnic slur for a Baltic person who may look “more German” than Russian] because of the accent, or the way I dressed. But I wasn’t offended. Overall, only I and Alexander Khavanov made the NHL from that team. And from the junior team the line of Alexei Yashin, Alexei Kovalev, and Andrei Nikolishin. And the ones who were hard on me never achieved anything in hockey.
“Then once the Lithuanian soccer team Zalgiris Kaunas went to Moscow to play a game. I got to the train station to talk with my friends, and when I wanted to get back, there was police everywhere. It was impossible to get out of there, therefore I jumped on the train to get back home. When I arrived home, I was so homesick… My parents asked me: “What are you doing here?!?” And so I replied, “I’m done with hockey, have enough of it.” Then they called me to the Soviet Union Junior National team, so my mama called my childhood coach and he almost had to use force to get me back. But when the team left for America, I didn’t cry…
“I was lucky to play for Vladimir Yurzinov in Moscow. Dynamo was coached by Yuri Moiseev when I was first called up to the senior team, but then it was decided to replace him with Yurzinov, who was more keen to play younger players, other than coaching with a more conservative style. He worked a lot with defensemen, that’s why I attended his camps for many summers the following years. This is the main problem of contemporary Russian hockey. We don’t have many players who play the same way that I played or, [Alexei] Zhitnik, Boris Mironov, [Vladimir] Konstantinov. Only Alexei Emelin remained among the more aggressive players. All the other players just want to score? Maybe they realized that it’s easier to get bigger contracts by scoring goals?
“I was just 16 when I first got to the senior team. I was so scared of the veterans like Yuri Vozhakov or [former Edmonton Oilers 1987 Draft pick] Sergei Yashin. They wouldn’t stand on ceremony with junior players. My first game, as ill luck would have it, was against CSKA Moscow. I was sitting on the bench, with a full face mask, praying not to get iced. And on the last shift, Yurzinov tells me: “It’s your turn!” My head was spinning in circles, my hands were trembling, but I didn’t screw it up. The next day my surname was in all the sports newspapers and I showed it to all my schoolmates. They thought it was great.”
First Olympic Games
“The biggest boost to my career thus far was when we won the 1992 WJC and I was named the tournament’s top defenseman. Viktor Tikhonov, who coached the National Team at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, called only Kovalev and Zhitnik from our team. I was mad about it… how was it possible that I, the best defenseman at the WJC, wasn’t noticed? But after a couple of days, Dynamo head coach Petr Vorobiev told me, “Go to the National Team.” “Go”, and not “you were called to”, or “get a plane”. I only had to cross the street to go from our baza to the National Team one. And I crossed the street.
“So I ended up at the Olympic Games. We had a very young team, after the collapse of the Soviet Union we weren’t representing any country, that’s why we played with the Olympic flag and without an anthem. We could never win that tournament without Vyacheslav Bykov and Andrei Khomutov. I played on a unit with them, Dmitri Mironov and [today’s Buffalo Sabres scout] Yuri Khmylev. We could easily see what influence they had on the team. We were young and not frightened by anything. Right before Albertville the console Game Boy was released. The whole team would play on it without a pause when we had no practices. Including during the Olympics. It didn’t stop us from winning.
“Once we got to the airport we hopped on a bus and I had to get it to stop because I felt sick. Can you imagine a rookie like me to have the impudence to stop the national team’s bus? There are enough similar anecdotes from those times… I remember that once I was in Riga with a very famous player, and he was so out of it that didn’t even realize that we got on a train from Moscow. But I haven’t touched alcohol in 21 years already. I made my decision, although some guys were healthy enough to both play and drink.
“That same year the NHL draft was in Montreal. With the second overall pick, the Ottawa Senators drafted Alexei Yashin. He was and still is my friend. All the forecasts had me being picked fifth, with the Maple Leafs owning the pick. I was already on the cameras, and there is was a pause. Timeout. And then they announced a trade: the Maple Leafs traded their first round pick to the Islanders. I’m going to New York!
“In those days the Islanders weren’t a good team, and that was what I needed. I was already making plans, it would have been better not to go to a top team. I understood quite fast that in a lower level team I would have more chances to get a spot in the lineup and play my kind of hockey. A good team would have been good even without me. I moved overseas without any problem, differently from many other guys. Dynamo Moscow didn’t make any problem with us leaving the team, unlike CSKA. I was approached by the same Dynamo Moscow directors: “Do you want to play in the NHL?” “I do!” “No problem.”
“On October 2nd I got there and I was almost dead after the first practice. But I understood quite fast that on the small ice that it’s quite easy to play the body. And I had a couple of big hits and the coaches told me, “You have to keep on playing that way.”
“I didn’t have any authority, but I had no fear as well, even if no one knew me and my surname was remembered more for a disease when written in Latin characters. I remember that in San Jose the newspapers had a title like “What kind of disease is Kasparaitis?”
“But soon they had to know my name. In the NHL I made a name for myself playing hard against Mario Lemieux. Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup twice in a row in those years, and Lemieux hit me from behind against the glass. What’s this? So I got back on my feet and hit him back. And again. The crowd went crazy, but I was cool with it. You shouldn’t hit other players from behind.
“And what about Philadelphia? I gave Eric Lindros his first concussion. And then he piled up one after another. I hit him with my shoulder, absolutely by the rules, it was just that Eric was skating with the puck with his head down.
“After a few years, in 2002, I was a UFA, and I had to decide where to play, so Lindros called me and said: “I want that we play for the same team.” And having Lindros not angry with me was a big motivation to sign with the New York Rangers.
“Fights weren’t my cup of tea due to my size. Not many remember that Andrei Nazarov wasn’t the only enforcer, who could fight with the NHL’s top fighters, but also Vladimir Malakhov. The fact was simply that with his skating and shooting ability he was mainly a “playing” defenseman. But when the opposition got him angry… Once, when we were playing for the Islanders, in a game against the Red Wings, how did he fight Joey Kocur! All our jaws dropped that time.
“I always repeat to myself that I was born in the best times. I was raised in the Soviet Union, where everything was free. But then when I got a bit older the Union collapsed and I had a chance to go to the NHL. With timing, I was lucky to play in those years too. Now, I could not play my style. In the 70s it was very tough and I think someone would have killed me. But now it would be suspension after suspension. My friend [Brendan] Shanahan is now making stricter and stricter rules. Why are people getting concussions? Because they are not ready. We were taught how to hit and how to maximize the contact. But if for example, Lindros searched for hits himself, then Wayne Gretzky was a very smart player. It’s not true that there was an unwritten rule that no one could touch him back in those days. He simply played very smartly, seeing when trouble was coming.”
“But once I manage to catch him off guard. I had knee ligament injury and I missed a lot of time. Then, one of my first games after the injury was with the Islanders against the Los Angeles Kings, where Wayne was playing at the time. During the intermissions, I was interviewed: “Is it hard to play against Gretzky?” “No, it is not,” and something in this tone. Then the next period starts, I check Gretzky hard on his bottom, he flies away, I get the puck and score. And all after this interview, I just got it done!
“When you’re going to hit a leader of another team, it’s very important to understand that the opposition stops thinking about hockey. Sometimes players get mad, they start hunting you getting penalty after penalty. And your coaches will be very happy about it. During a game, I did not have any friends. Once, I was playing against Ottawa and I hit Yashin hard behind the net! I almost killed him. After the game, his mama was waiting for me in the locker room: “How could you do that! You are friends! Don’t call us again!” Yashin, with whom I have been friends for 16-17 years, was incredibly talented. If he tried just twenty percent of what I did, he would have been the best in the world. All I achieved in my life arrived because of hard work.”
* End of Part 1, for the Part II, click here *
A professional hockey writer and translator. Loves Russian culture, language, and hockey. Reachable on twitter @AlexSerenRosso