January 17, 2016
Talented, feisty on the ice and a free spirit away from it, Darius Kasparaitis was a highly competitive defenseman from Lithuania. A strong skater who mostly concentrated on the defensive side of the game, Kasparaitis had an infectious enthusiasm for the game.
Kasparaitis succeeded Ulf Samuelsson as the NHL's resident controversial hard hitting defenseman. He loved nothing more than to lay a booming hit and he preferred to target the other team's superstars. Just ask Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros and Mark Messier, among many others.
When he was not seeking victims with his deadly hip checks or flying shoulders, he was known to use his stick liberally and yap constantly. Dirty? Sure. Tough? Definitely.
"I think they no like me," he said of his opponents. "First year, it's good. Second year, maybe people know me as good player, tough guy. When I come in N.H.L. I must sell my name: 'Kasparaitis, this guy is no easy player. This is hard player.' Be ready for me. Hockey is man game."
"It's my game, my style," he said. "Sometimes I hit guy in first period and guys want to hit me back all night and make me hurt. I must be always ready, careful."
Somehow Kasparaitis survived 14 NHL seasons with the Islanders, Penguins, Avalanche and Rangers. Going to battle 863 times in the regular season and another 83 games in the playoffs as the most hated man on the ice could not have been easy.
But Kasparaitis loved the role and every minute of every battle.
Kasparaitis was the first and only Lithuanian to play on the national team of the former Soviet Union.
Kasparaitis had left Lithuania at the age of 14 to play hockey for Moscow Dynamo. He had to overcome extreme homesickness to continue on to become the first Lithuanian to play in the National Hockey League.
"I come home for holidays, I tell my mom, 'I don't want to play hockey and live with Russian people,'" Kasparaitis recalled. "My mom cry and say: 'Go back. It's your job. Go back to Moscow.' I go back. Cry. I was 15 years old. Now, I very thankful to my mom."
He quickly became one of the top defensemen in the Soviet Union. Representing the national team and competing at the Olympics became his goal.
At the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in France, Kasparaitis represented the Unified Team, a team consisting of Russia and of former Soviet territories that were trying to figure out their political futures after the collapse of communism. The former Soviets ended up beating Canada for the gold medal.
But to play in those Olympics Kasparaitis had to sign away his eligibility to play any sport for a Lithuanian team.
“I had a choice to play in Olympics (for Russia) or represent Lithuania (not in the Olympics). I made a choice to play on the highest level.”
"You feel good when you win Olympic Games," he said. "You can be rich guy but you never buy Olympic championship. Big title, for all life. Have children, show children picture and medal. Gold medal. It's great."
The New York Islanders drafted Kasparaitis fifth overall in 1992. With the changing political world seeing Soviet stars allowed to freely pursue careers in the NHL, Kasparaitis immediately began focusing on his new goal.
"Win world junior championship, win Olympic Games, play in world championship," he said. "Then, drafted by New York Islanders. Come and see America. Play in NHL. Unbelievable! Hockey is a great life."
After a career being one of hockey's most punishing hitters, Kasparaitis retired and moved to Florida. In his playing days he was known as a big spender, blowing his high paychecks on clothes and cars and nights out. But he has settled down and started his own real estate development company.