Kasparaitis chasing dreams
Kasparaitis chasing dreams
Champion talks to coaches, about Lithuania and more
The defenceman from the Lithuanian town of Elektrenai won gold with the Soviet/CIS team at the 1992 World Juniors when he was named Best Defenceman of the tournament and continued with Olympic Gold the same year for the Russian hockey team that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union competed as the Olympics as the Unified Team. He continued to represent Russian in three more Olympics completing the medal set with silver in Nagano 1998 and bronze in Salt Lake City 2002, and in two World Championships.
At the International Coaching Symposium held annually during the World Championship Kasparaitis was talking as an expert in hockey from east to west where he was playing in the NHL about hockey skills in professional hockey and the collaboration between head and skills coaches.
Among the other speakers were famous international coaches and experts such as Mike Keenan, Alexander Khavanov, Marc Crawford and Sergei Nemchinov.
“I was born at the right time,” Kasparaitis says summarizing his NHL career. “If I had gone to the NHL ten years earlier, they would have killed me. And if I had gone ten years later, they would have put me into the penalty box all the time.”
Kasparaitis admits that times have changed for the type of player he was.
“Why don’t we have defencemen like Kasparaitis, Yushkevich, Zhitnik nowadays? Because children want to score goals. When I raised my children in Florida, no one wanted to practise. They just liked to take the puck and play hockey,” says the father of five children.
The 43-year-old talks about how he came to play hockey. “As a child I was lucky with the coach,” he says. The coach came from the Latvian capital of Riga to Elektrenai, an industrial town built during the Soviet times that became Lithuania’s hockeytown in a country crazy about basketball during that era and where the two only Lithuanians to make the NHL hail form, Kasparaitis and Dainius Zubrus. There was a strong focus on skating when Kasparaitis started as an eight-year-old.
“Do you know why Valeri Vasiliev invited me to Dynamo Moscow? We in Lithuania played a game against Dynamo Moscow. And apparently I hit Zhamnov a couple of times. They were surprised, asked: ‘Who is this? We are winning 10-0 and he skates and hits everybody!’” Kasparaitis recalls when he as a teenager played against against the juniors of one of the most famous Soviet club teams with his local team and legendary defenceman Vasiliev was scouting for new players for Dynamo.
“Vasiliev came to our bench during the game and asked who I was. I replied. ‘Do you want to play for Dynamo?’ he asked. ‘Of course I want!’ I replied. ‘You will,’ he answered. He drank a couple of bottles with my father I went to Moscow.”
He left home to move from small-town Lithuania to the Soviet capital and one of its most famous hockey teams when he was 14. The first player he saw was Andrei Nikolishin, who looked like a real man. Kasparaitis on the other hand felt skinny. “We had nothing to eat. They gave coupons for food. It was not only a challenge to practise but also to find food,” he says about his childhood in Soviet Lithuania.
“When I arrived in Moscow I joined the team with guys two years older than me and one time I had an open-ice hit against a teammate. I got energized from that although I think the guy was not happy. But I realized that in hockey you cannot just score goals,” he says about developing his style of play in his formative years. “Sometimes I was asked why I play such aggressive hockey. I said I’m trying to survive as a 14-year-old in Moscow.”
Kasparaitis developed in Moscow until he left for New York around his 20th birthday in 1992, the year he won Olympic and World Junior gold as well as the Soviet league. In summers he used to travel to Switzerland for Vladimir Yurzinov’s camps to work on his skills.
He spent 14 seasons in the NHL playing for the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Colorado Avalanche and New York Rangers. After two more years with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL he ended his career as a professional player in 2010 and turned to his real-estate business.
“Sometimes kids asked what the parents were doing. The answer was that mom graduated at the university and head a company, and daddy was with us and played hockey. But everything I achieved in life I did thanks to hockey. You come across a lot in sports. I’m a good example. I came to Moscow when I was 14 years old to survive and then played in America – it’s incredible! My character and good friends who were always there helped me.
“I’m 44 year old. If I would turn back the time to 20 years ago, I would have listened better to the coaches, analyse more,” he says. “And I was always afraid to rest because I thought I would be out of shape. Maybe I had so many injuries because of that. Players need to understand that they sometimes need a break.”
Kasparaitis is still not done with playing hockey as he’s chasing his last dream as a player: representing his native country Lithuania in international hockey. Opposed to Zubrus, who represented Lithuania in the lower divisions, Kasparaitis opted to play for medals with Russia when he had to choose after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But changing the national team is not that easy as he had to find out. To be eligible to represent Lithuania after having played for Russia before, Kasparaitis needs to play four consecutive years (48 months) in Lithuania according to the IIHF Statutes & Bylaws and he started to do so in the 2013/2014 season after a four-year break from competitive hockey.
“I’m still playing hockey, in Lithuania, for the Hockey Punks Vilnius. I try to play for the Lithuanian national team at the 2018 World Championship. In hockey, not basketball,” he says just a few weeks after winning the bronze medal in this year’s Lithuanian championship.
Despite just playing a few games and his long break from the ice, he’s still easily one of the best players on the ice when he puts his skates on for Lithuanian league play. And despite his history as a pure defender he even scores goals there – two goals and 11 points in three games – and hopes that his dream of donning the Lithuanian jersey will become true in two years.
The country is currently playing in the third tier at the World Championship Division I Group B and missed promotion to the second level for next year with the likes of Austria and Kazakhstan only by one goal this year without Zubrus and without goaltender Mantas Armalis, who could become the third Lithuanian to play an NHL game after signing a contract with the San Jose Sharks. With Kasparaitis potentially on the team his career would become full circle.
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