Darius Kasparaitis played his first game for the Lithuanian national team on 10th November 2017 on home ice in Klaipeda against Estonia. Photo: Vytautas Petrikas
Plays first game for native country Lithuania
Long-time NHL defenceman Darius Kasparaitis for the first time represented his native country Lithuania on Friday in an exhibition game against Estonia.
The game was a first step to make his dream come true to play for his country in an IIHF competition when Lithuania will host the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas.
Kasparaitis is one of two Lithuanians who made it to the NHL. Both he and Dainius Zubrus hail from Elektrenai, a town halfway between Kaunas and the capital of Vilnius. But while Zubrus represented Lithuania in the lower divisions after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kasparaitis went another way.
When he was 14 he left Lithuania and followed the invitation to join Dynamo Moscow, one of the strongest teams in the Soviet Union. He played for the Soviet U18 and U20 national teams. In 1992 during the split up he stayed with the Russian system, won Olympic gold with the “Unified Team” formed by Russia and other former Soviet republics except the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the 1992 Winter and Summer Olympics. The same year he represented Russia in the World Championship as he did in 1996, at three more Olympic Winter Games (1998, 2002, 2006) and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
Now Kasparaitis is past his prime. He left the NHL in 2007 and played two more seasons for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL before retiring as a professional player. But after four years without official hockey games he came back. In 2013 he made his formal transfer back to Lithuania and joined the Hockey Punks Vilnius. He has played four consecutive seasons in the top Lithuanian league and wants to apply for a change of nationality in IIHF competitions to represent his country in Kaunas when Lithuania will host Ukraine, Japan, Estonia, Croatia and Romania in April.
Playing at the Baltic Challenge Cup in the port town of Klaipeda this week is his first experience in the red-and-white jersey with the Lithuanian knight. And he had a good start with the probably strongest Lithuanian presence ever. Kasparaitis was first time on the ice as was goaltender Mantas Armalis, who became the third Lithuanian to be signed by an NHL team but played in the AHL last season, and Nerijus Alisauskas, the second Lithuanian after Kasparaitis to play in the KHL. (Armalis has in the meantime joined him at Dinamo Riga.) And then there was Dainius Zubrus, who recently retired from his long NHL career – not on the ice but at least on the tribune of the Svyturis Arena. But of course hockey fans in the Baltic country hope to see him on the ice again for a third World Championship Division I tournament after 2005 and 2014.
In the 7-2 win against Estonia, 45-year-old defenceman Kasparaitis helped set up two early goals scored by his 18-year-old linemate Markas Kaleinikovas to give Lithuania a 2-0 lead against their Baltic rivals. 17 seconds into the third period the new Lithuanian captain with the number 11 also had a marker on his own to give Lithuania a 6-0 lead. That made him arguably the oldest “national team rookie” to score in his first game for his team.
“I’m not here to score goals, I’m here to play defence,” he said about the goal and was happy about his debut in his native country. “I feel great. I haven’t played for a long time. First of all the team won. It is good for me to see where I am at and that I can still compete at this level and that if I’m at good health and have passion for the game I can still do it.”
The Baltic Challenge Cup will be played at three venues. The stage in Klaipeda beside Lithuania and Estonia includes a selection of the Latvian league and the Ukrainian national team.