In this two-part series, originally appearing on the Russian website Sport-Express, Darius Kasparaitis recalled his life and career, from his early days and time in the NHL to his post-hockey life. In the first part, Kasparaitis talked mostly about his first steps in hockey and his move overseas. In this second part, he focused more on his later NHL career and post-hockey family life.
* For the original Sport-Express article by Igor Rabiner, click here *
Traded to Pittsburgh
“Later on, the Islanders had a new GM, Mike Milbury. I remember that once, on a plane, he swore at me, almost tearing his shirt off his chest: “As long as I’m with this team, you’ll be too.” And the next day he calls me and says, “We traded you. To Pittsburgh.” I was crying, I really loved it in New York. And I almost went crazy out of this betrayal. And frankly speaking, I was worried about how the Penguins would greet me. [Mario] Lemieux and [Jaromir] Jagr were really important for them, and I had hit them so many times… And then it turned out that it was Lemieux himself who had the idea of the trade: “Thank God you’re now playing for us. Although we’ll always have to wear our chest guards.
“After a bit, I came to understand why that trade happened. The Islanders were bought by Dallas businessman John Spano. He had no money but promised to get $600 million for the team. He had some documents, but he soon fell into a legal investigation and was given ten years in jail. But he and Mario were friends, maybe. Mario wanted me on his team and Spano promised to please him. Thus Milbury was simply forced to trade me. But after a long time I recognized that I was simply hurt by such disloyalty: promise me that we’re together forever one day, and literally the next day trade me to another team.
“Lemieux was a rogue. (Laughs.) In the sense that he always beat me at cards. Of course, superstars are a category of their own. I remember that he and Mark Messier had a new pair of skates for each game. They really used 50 to 60 pairs a year. They had special sticks too… If we talk about today’s superstars, I think that [Alex] Ovechkin is cooler than [Sidney] Crosby. But [Ovechkin] is my guy. But we mere mortals can’t moan too. Only at the end of my career, I understood about money and what kind of money regular people earn. I’m satisfied with my career. I wouldn’t change anything. I just would like to have scored more.
“Too bad that I never won the Stanley Cup, even if to win it I did everything I could and even more. In Pittsburgh, once during the playoffs, I broke my foot. I went to the arena on crutches just to watch the game from the stands. My first wife helped me into the car, which was truly hard for me. So I get there, get to the locker room, but everything is closed up. I tell the doctor: “Just freeze it.” So I get my foot in the skate, then I start skating in the pre-game warm-up, and I have no pain at all. So I was included in the lineup and played the whole game. During the games, you have such an adrenaline rush that you don’t feel any pain. But just try to imagine my wife’s shock when she saw me on the television! She got me to the arena on crutches, and then I’m on the ice and playing. This is why hockey players always help one another long after the end of their career. And not only hockey players. Some specialist described how 28% of football players die because of the stress the game has on their body. They know it, but they keep on playing. They sacrifice their health for their teams.”
New York Rangers
“I’ll never forget July 1st, 2002, when, at midnight, someone suddenly knocked on the door at my home in Long Island. It was New York Rangers vice-president Don Maloney. In his hands, he had a VHS tape and package from the team. The tape had a special video the Rangers had made for me, asking me to join their team. It included all the stars and even the actor Tim Robbins. I was amazed by such professional conduct. How could I refuse? I was a UFA, and I had offers from the Rangers, Boston, and Toronto. I joined the Rangers mostly because I spent most of my North American life in New York, but this video and Lindros’ call were important too. And for the second time in my career I ended up on the same team with players I really annoyed: first with Lemieux, then with Lindros. And once again there were no problems.
“It’s a pity that I wasn’t young anymore and playing for the Rangers I picked up a couple of nasty injuries. Objectively speaking, I did not play with the Rangers at the same level I did with other teams. But when I attend their games now and I meet their fans, I see that people still respect me. They knew that I gave 100%, and this is the most important thing. And in those years we had a stacked roster, but we achieved nothing. When you have a big contract, the press and fans take note of you as a player, first of all, there is your salary. Such pressure is very hard to sustain. And in New York, it’s even harder. After the 2004 lockout, the Rangers were rebuilding. [Brian] Leetch and [Alex] Kovalev were traded, Messier and [Pavel] Bure stopped playing, Lindros signed with Toronto. Only Jagr remained among the stars. We were together again. And he broke the team’s records for both goals and points. Am I surprised about the way he plays? Not at all. He has no wife, no girlfriends. What else can he do other than play hockey? (Laughs.)
“Management wanted to buy out most of the contracts, including my contract. But I called them and said: “I really want to stay with the team and do my best to help the franchise.” So the coaches decided to sign me to the team again, and I was even named an alternate captain. And that season, after a long time, we finally got back into the playoffs. And on my initiative, at the end of the regular season, we thanked the crowd from the ice.
We were playing against Washington and won after the shootout. Every player had an attempt, I was the only one who was sitting on the bench. Marek Malik scored on Olaf Kolzig and after we were done celebrating I called all the players and said: “Let’s raise our sticks and thank our fans.” Everyone was looking at me like I was crazy, but they did it. Since then the team does it after every win at Madison Square Garden. Now every NHL team does it, and it was invented by us!”
Back at Home
“I am a man of the world. I was born in Lithuania, played for Team Russia, my wife is from Sweden and I live in the US. A few years ago, when I already quit hockey, I started liking the idea of playing for Team Lithuania. The fact is that in order to be eligible, you have to play for five years in the local league. Even just one game a season. So it’s been three years that get there to play a game with the local team Hockey Punks. I even scored two goals! You can imagine the level yourself. But it’s hard, and I’m not really sure that I’ll reach my goal. In Lithuania I’ve been told, “Well, you played for Team Russia.” What should I have done? What hockey was there in Lithuania at the start of the 90s? What was the level of the national team? And I had no time to think. In Albertville [at the 1992 Olympics], [Team Russia manager] Igor Tuzik told me, “You can choose: Either you play for Team Russia or you go home.” And it was a bit strange that I was asked that right before the first game when my thoughts were only about the game. And of course, I accepted without even thinking.”
“When, during the 2004 lockout, I played for Ak Bars Kazan I swore I’d never return to Russia. It was terrible, arenas, hotels. I had forgotten the Russian way of life. In Kazan the arena was terrible, not to mention places like Novokuznetsk or other cities. [Head coach] Zinetula Bilyaletdinov tried to manage things the old school way and get us staying at the baza all the time, but it didn’t work too well. Even though we had a great team, from [Ilya] Kovalchuk to [Alex] Kovalev, from [Vinny] Lecavalier to [Dany] Heatley, the assembled World Class stars were brought together late and couldn’t create chemistry in such a tournament. We didn’t have enough time to adapt. After we lost in the first round to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, the locker room was silent. No one was expecting that. I was very surprised that no one, including stars like Kovalchuk or Kovalev, could spark some life into the team by playing the puck and showing their skills. It meant that the team did not play.”
In the KHL
“Then, in 2007, the Rangers assigned me to SKA. I was still under contract with New York, and I was sent down to the AHL. In Hartford, I was told, “What are you doing here? This is a league for young players, we prepare them to play in the NHL. You already achieved a lot.” And then I was asked if I wanted to get back to Russia. I was surprised but I replied that I wanted to play high-level hockey. I was offered to Avangard Omsk but I looked at where Omsk was on the map and decided to reject their offer. I thought that it would have been too much of a shock for me.
“So, it was SKA. I agreed and the teams came to an agreement as well. And my salary was still paid up by the Rangers. Playing under Barry Smith, I was very surprised in a positive way. The level was much higher compared to the three years before. I really enjoyed the KHL, watching it from a close distance. I don’t know what the problems are now with the Ruble course, but getting to St. Petersburg I was very surprised about the professionalism of the league. I frankly wasn’t expecting that. And there were no bazas anymore. We got there before the games just to avoid getting stuck in traffic and taking a nap.
“Unfortunately, I could not show my best side there. I played one season then I signed a two-year contract. And then I tore my groin muscle, underwent four surgeries, and the doctors told me that I’d be better off retiring. Management offered me to join Ivan Zanatta’s staff. Things didn’t go well and Zanatta was fired. Then the new head coach [Czech Vaclav] Sykora decided to work more closely with his fellow countryman Jan Votruba and I was sent to the stands to take stats. I wasn’t happy about it and left the team.
“I spent the next six months with my wife at her home in Sweden. At first, I loved it but then I understood that I was too used to America. And it was hard without knowing the language. The winter was cold and dark. When I was an active player, I did not pay attention to the weather as I was in the locker room all the time and was thinking only about hockey. But having more free time, I understood that I did not like that weather. But I had a flat in Miami and I asked my wife to move there, where we still live. I knew that if things didn’t go well in hockey, I could find my path in other areas. And I do not regret anything.
Back to the US and Family Matters
“I met my third wife in New York when I was playing with the Rangers. She was playing basketball in the NCAA for the Fordham University. It was the 2007 summer, and there were all sorts of problems with the team and I was in my contract year. I wanted to prepare myself as best I could for the new season. We ran together in the park, visited the gym. And fell in love. I have five kids now. I have an older daughter with my first wife and four kids with my third wife. I couldn’t even imagine that! When we were together for the second year, she signed a one-year contract with an Italian team. I was flying all the time from St. Petersburg to Rome. And she would fly to me. And at the end of the season, she was pregnant with twins. We decided to give birth to them in Sweden. A couple of years later, in St. Petersburg, we had a son and in Florida I had my fifth child. When I fly somewhere, the guys at the passport control go crazy: I was born in Lithuania, with wife and twins in Sweden, two kids in the USA and another one in Russia.
“I play an active role in their growing up and they are teaching me a lot of things. Early on, I was thinking about giving them some toys to keep them busy but I quickly understood that you can’t act that way. As a father, especially with so many kids, you have to be as disciplined as you are on the ice. If I was a coach or a manager then I’d have to move around the whole world. And I think that forcing my family to change environments season after season would not be right. Sometimes you have to sacrifice something for the good of your family. My family is my number one priority and I do not want to move anywhere. It would be too much of a mess with such a large family.
“I played hockey with my kids and decided not to accept an offer from the Florida Panthers as they did not have a concrete spot in their lineup for me. Then I received another offer from someone to open a real estate business. “You have the needed experience, I have a good name and many contacts,” he said. And we went on. Of course, it was hard at first but I understood that it’s not too different from sports: You have to make the right decision and not be afraid to make a mistake. If you don’t free yourself from that fear, you will not achieve anything. I learned a lot of things in those two years and this job is very interesting. I’m at the company’s office from 10AM to 5PM. I’m still not used to it, same with sending dozens of emails every day. My favourite thing is to participate in meetings, but try not to make them too long. And of course, I make sure I play hockey at least two times a week. You always need to work off your stress…”
Related: Part One: Darius Kasparaitis’ Life
A professional hockey writer and translator. Loves Russian culture, language, and hockey. Reachable on twitter @AlexSerenRosso