Game 9: JPN-LTU / Photo: Sarunas Mazeika
Rejoicing to play for his country
Aged 45, Darius Kasparaitis is finally fulfilling his dream to represent his native Lithuania at a World Championship and aiming to bow out on a high.
Being one of the first generation of players to be nurtured in the ice arena inaugurated in his hometown of Elektrenai in 1977, Darius Kasparaitis was the first player born and raised on Lithuanian soil that made a name for himself on the world stage.
A glittering career saw the hard-hitting blueliner play 14 seasons in the NHL, representing New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Colorado Avalanche, and New York Rangers. He has also skated at the Winter Olympics on four occasions, winning one gold medal, one silver medal, and one bronze.
At the age of 45, Kasparaitis has made an emotional return to international hockey, suiting up for his native Lithuania at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas.
Welcome home to Lithuania. How does it feel to be back?
It feels great. I come to Lithuania every year to visit my mum and dad, but unfortunately, my dad passed away last year. Every time I come back to Lithuania I try to play hockey, in the mall or anywhere, as it is part of the tradition.
What does it mean to you to wear the colours of Lithuania and represent our country during a World Championship played on home ice?
I was born here, I was raised here, I made my first steps in hockey in Lithuania and I always had the feeling to represent my country in an international tournament and this is a dream I've had for a long time that now is coming true. In the beginning, it was just a thought, but now it is a reality and I am very proud, also of myself that I could do this. I am also proud that my wife and children understand how big this is for me. My wife really supports my journey and every day when I talk to her she tells me she is following me and is really amazed that I can still do this, being almost 46.
So how has it been so far, to play at the 2018 IIHF World Championships Division 1B in Kaunas being almost 46?
It is hard. I am still in good shape and I've been training a lot. I kept my weight down, but the speed of the game is still the speed of the game. I am not a young player anymore, but I try pick positions and stay calm and it's been good so far. I think it is much easier when you have a team with such great talent that we have offensively. But I am really happy where I am at, being two games away from completing our journey and our goal and hopefully it will be a dream come true winning the first place and then retiring for sure.
So there is no chance that you could be persuaded to return next year and perhaps try your luck in Division 1A?
It will be my final game this Saturday. It's a young man's game and I wanted to play one tournament for my country and that is what I've done. I need to put the focus on my other career in real estate and also raising my six kids. That's what I've done for the last nine years and I want to continue doing that. You realise when you go back and become an athlete again that there are a lot of responsibilities. I've missed the game of hockey, but I haven't really missed the uncertainty before every game. Not being able to know what is going to happen or how you are going to play, all that stress I don't miss at all. I like to play my hockey in Miami. I know I am the best player there and it is just about having fun.
One opponent when playing for fun in Miami also happens to be your teammate on the Lithuanian national team here in Kaunas, Dainius Zubrus. What would he have to say about your personal verdict of you being the best player in Miami?
He's playing there against me all the time and he probably thinks he is better than me. But on a serious note, Zubrus has been great and a legend who played more for his country than I did. He helped me a lot this upcoming year. We trained together and he was more driven. I took this seriously, but not as seriously as he did, because he is much younger than me and he just finished a couple of years ago. We did a lot of skating together and when we play he is pushing me a little bit.
I have seen you sporting a New York Rangers t-shirt and a pair of New York Knicks shorts during your warm-up in Kaunas this week. I take it New York is still very dear to you?
I first came to New York in 1992. My first team in North America was New York Islanders and I kind of stayed in New York until 2007, so even when I played in Pittsburgh, I've spent every summer in New York and I've met my wife there. I like New York Knicks, Rangers, Islanders but also Pittsburgh Penguins. When it comes to basketball I've always supported Knicks and I just try to keep a touch of my history near me. Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker.
When making your NHL-debut for the New York Islanders at the start of the 1992/93 season you immediately got off to a flying start with two hits on your first shift. When did that physical streak in your game start to develop?
I think as a child I was very aggressive. As soon as we started skating my coach put me in defense straight away as I was very pushy and hated to lose. I was just playing that way as I had to battle a lot throughout my youth and to prove that I belonged there. When I was playing in Lithuania I was two years younger than the other guys. When I came to Russia I had to prove that I belonged there. I think I had a little bit of talent for hitting and I've always played that way.
When I then came to the NHL, the game wasn't too much about systems. The ice surface was so much smaller and that is why I had a lot of hits because it was so easy and they kind of expected you to step out from the middle of nowhere to hip-check guys. I always believed I had more skills besides hitting but when they see you as a physical defenceman they wanted you to play that way, so that's what I became.
You've played under many great coaches during a long and distinguished career. Who had the biggest influence on you?
I think my first coach in my hometown of Elektrenai, Aleksey Nikiforov, had a big role in my hockey career. He came from a different system, he came to us from Latvia and was Russian and a great skater. He was also Zubrus's coach in Elektrenai and I remember skating a lot during my first two-three years and I think he built the foundation for my hockey career.
When going to Moscow it was during a transition period when Dynamo Moscow went from older players to younger players. I was 16 and had Vladimir Jurzinov as a coach and he believed in youth and let us develop. Even after I've left Moscow for the NHL I've still saw Jurzinov every summer for ten years in Switzerland for training camps.
Also my first NHL coach, Al Arbour was a legend and he was like a dad for me. He was very tough but also very loving and very understanding. Zinetula Bilyaletdinov also had a big influence on me as had just retired as a player when I came as a young kid to Dynamo Moscow and he was working with me extra all the time. Petr Vorobiev was also part of the coaching group at Dynamo.
I've had many great coaches. Working with Herb Brooks and Ivan Hlinka at the same time was fun too with Brooks mentioning the Miracle on Ice every day.
Who has been the toughest opponent you've faced in your playing career?
I think Peter Forsberg was very hard to play against. The same goes for the Legion of Doom with Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg. When playing for (Pittsburgh) Penguins we played a lot against Philadelphia Flyers and I remember they were so big.
I've played against a lot of good guys, Alexei Kovalev was so hard to play against with his skill and when the young kids came in with Sidney Crosby, Yevgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin, you always knew that they were able to make you look silly.