Anyone whose ever seen Darius Kasparaitis play hockey knows what a fierce competitor he was. On the ice, he was a one man wrecking crew. As he tells it, "My first shift ever, I hit two guys. Same time," he chuckled. "One guy was coming with puck. When I hit him, he flew back, and there was another guy coming behind him."
Kasparaitis dished out punishment like that in the NHL consistently for 15 years and 863 games - 232 of them for the New York Islanders over a span of almost five years. He loved playing for the Islanders, and he loved living on Long Island.
"When I came to New York I just fell in love with the place. And the people, the fans," Kasparaitis said.
One night early in his career, he wasn't playing and decided to sit in the stands with his girlfriend.
"The people went crazy, cheering my name," he recalled. "I felt like I'd be an Islander for the rest of my life."
The fifth-overall pick in 1992, Kasparaitis was drafted just as the Soviet Union started to allow players to leave. The timing was fortunate. Compare Slava Fetisov's 11-year battle for his freedom to Kasparaitis' story:
"The President of Dynamo Moscow came up and said to me 'Do you want to go play in NHL?' I said, 'Yeah, of course.' He said, 'Ok, bye.'"
Kasparaitis landed in New York less than week before opening day, stepped right into the lineup, and delivered. The Islanders went deep into the playoffs that year, beating the Capitals in round one, then upsetting the Presidents' Trophy winning and reigning two-time Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in seven games, before falling in the conference finals to the eventual cup winners, the Canadiens.
It wasn't just that Kasparaitis hit hard, he was also an agitator - the kind of player other players loved to have on their team, but hated to play against. This made for some awkward moments when he was traded - especially because he wound up going to the Penguins and later the Rangers, two of the Islanders' biggest rivals.
"It's funny," he said. "The two teams that hated me the most, I played for them."
Kasparaitis was traded to Pittsburgh in 1996 and played six years there before moving onto Colorado for a year, and then finished his NHL career with the Rangers, where he played from 2002 to 2007.
As a boy, Kasparaitis first laced up a pair of skates in the small town of Elektrenai, Lithuania when he was eight years old. It was clear he was good from the start, and by the time he was 14, Dynamo Moscow, one of the best hockey schools in the world, invited him to come train with them. It meant leaving his family and moving to Moscow, and though he was excited, it wasn't easy.
"At first I would go to the railroad station and look at the trains coming from Lithuania," Kasparaitis said. "I really wanted to go home, but when I became a teenager, I realized freedom is a good thing."
He still remembers getting his first track suit that said CCCP on it.
"I was so proud of it. It means you are accomplished as an athlete," Kasparaitis said
Not to mention the pride he felt when he was asked to play his first professional game for the men's team at 16. (Kasparaitis played against the Red Army team featuring the likes of Sergei Federov, Pavel Bure and Fetisov.)
"It took me eight years to go from first time skating to highest professional league in Soviet Union," Kasparaitis said reflecting on his ascent.
When he left the NHL in 2007, Kasparaitis went back to Russia and spent two years playing in the top league there - now the called KHL. It was a natural move for him - he wasn't ready to stop playing, and he had represented the Soviet Union internationally many times. In 1992, just before the NHL draft, he won gold for the Soviet Union at the World Juniors and then went on to win gold again with the Soviet Olympic team later that year. (He also won a silver Olympic medal in 1998, and a bronze in 2002. ) After the KHL, in 2009, he and his wife, Lisa Carrol, who is Swedish, moved to Sweden for two years. But even then, he wasn't done playing hockey quite yet.
As the first Lithuanian-born player ever to play in the NHL, and one of only two to ever play here; (Dainius Zubrus is the other) Kasparaitis always dreamed of being able to play for his birth country. But because he had represented the Soviet Union, he had to wait five years to be eligible to play for Lithuania. Plus, he also had to play in Lithuania's top league for four years. He and his family had moved to Florida in 2011, so he travelled from Florida every year to play the minimum three games for the Hockey Punks in order to qualify for the World Championships last year. He managed it though, and he and the team won gold in division 1B. Kasparaitis was 46.
"It was a dream come true," he said. "And now I can sleep."
So, what's the only Russian who ever hit harder than Ivan Drago doing now? Officially he works for a real estate development company, dealing mostly with construction issues. But it's the Mr. Mom part of his day that might surprise you. His wife started a clothing company for kids called Livly, and she travels often to promote the business. Kasparaitis has five kids at home age 10 or younger - two 10 year-old twin girls and three boys who are eight, four, and two. He's up at 5:30 a.m. with the two year old, and he gets breakfast and makes lunches for the rest of them, making sure they're all on time for daycare or school, as well as helping with their homework at night. Some might say battling a 200-pound opponent for the puck in the corner is the easier job, but Kasparaitis feels lucky.
"Being a part of my kids' lives and getting to see them grow is the biggest gift you can have as a dad," he said. "I feel very fortunate to be available for my kids every day, and nothing can replace that."
He still plays hockey three teams a week, of course - even if he has to sneak it in at lunch time. And make no mistake, he hasn't completely mellowed just yet.
"I got a little rough and the guys who run the rink told me not to come for two weeks, I was suspended," Kasparaitis said. "But then after one week they called me and told me to come back because the guys really missed me."
He pondered the side of him that made him such a great player and how that fits in when he plays just for fun.
"Sometimes I wish I could lose this competitiveness in me. Maybe one day I will, but I feel like I still have it. It's very hard for me to control it." He paused for beat, then said, "I still have hope that I'm gonna find something in life that I'm as passionate about besides my family. Something that I can do and have as much enjoyment as I did as a hockey payer."
Good luck with that, Darius…