Selected by the Islanders fifth overall in the 1992 NHL Amateur Draft, Darius Kasparaitis was a fresh faced 19-year-old just looking to break into the big time. The Lithuanian defenseman made his first trip to North America just four days prior to the start of the 1992-93 season, arriving on Long Island on Oct. 2.
Little did he know that he’d make the Islanders Opening Night roster.
“It totally shocked me,” Kasparaitis said. “It was my first year in the United States. I came from Russia (playing for Dynamo Moscow) and I wasn’t expecting to play in my first NHL game. Basically, I was thinking I was going to go to the minors. When they put me in the lineup, I was very shocked.”
|Darius Kasparaitis skates on the ice during an NHL game circa 1993 at the Nassau Coliseum. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images) |
The Islanders' first four games of the season were on the road, so Kasparaitis traveled with the club to New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Boston before making his debut at Nassau Coliseum. Finally, the day after his 20th birthday, Kasparaitis played in his first home game.
“I had a great time as a rookie because I had no idea about the league,” Kasparaitis said. “Every new game and new town was a new experience. I didn’t know any names. I heard big names like (Mario) Lemieux and (Wayne) Gretzky, but I just came as a young player and I played my heart out every game.”
Though he knew little about the league, Kasparaitis was well aware that the Pittsburgh Penguins were the reigning two-time Stanley Cup Champions. And as the Islanders faced them in just the second game of the season, Kasparaitis said he did feel a little intimidated. The Isles would fall 7-3 that night, also taking a 4-3 edge in the season series.
In their first round playoff series, the Isles defeated the Washington Capitals four games to two before moving onto the Patrick Division Finals against the Penguins. Going into that series, Kasparaitis still felt the nervousness that went through him when he first stepped onto the ice against Lemieux and the Penguins.
“I don’t think we had high expectations in the playoffs,” Kasparaitis said. “We just went in and played hard. We played as a team and we believed that we could win at least one game (against the Penguins). When we won the first game, it gave us a lot of confidence that we could beat them.”
The Islanders defeated the Penguins in Game 1 before dropping the next two. The two teams split the next two match-ups to bring the series to 3-2 in favor of the Penguins. Desperate, the Islanders would even the series at three games apiece, setting the stage for David Volek's legendary overtime series winning tally in Game 7.
“Beating Pittsburgh was definitely the most memorable moment for me,” Kasparaitis said of his rookie campaign. “That was the greatest experience. No one gave us the credit that we could win even one game. When we beat them in Game 7, there were a lot of people that were surprised. Even our Islanders fans didn’t think that we could do something that was, at that time, unthinkable.”
As the Islanders returned to Long Island to begin the Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens, Long Island hockey fans were full of excitement for the first time in nearly a decade.
“People were really pumped up,” Kasparaitis said. “We gave them hope that maybe we could win the Stanley Cup again. That was a tough loss to the Canadiens (losing four games to one), but I didn’t realize until now that that would be the closest I’d come to being a Stanley Cup Champion. When you are a young player, you always say you’re going to have another chance, but sometimes you don’t get that chance.”
Kasparaitis will forever remember the season that he began his 13-year NHL career.
“I played a lot of years in the league, but I’ve never matched the excitement of my first year in the league with the Islanders,” Kasparaitis said. “I never had expectations, I was a rookie and the team just took me as I was. I always say that my first year was probably my best year.”
It means a lot to me, that we’re going to be honored. When you’re an Islander, I guess you’re always an Islander. That was my first team. That’s when everything started for me as a professional hockey player. - Darius Kasparaitis
Coming back to Long Island to celebrate that memorable season is one that Kasparaitis is excited for.
“It means a lot to me, that we’re going to be honored,” Kasparaitis said. “When you’re an Islander, I guess you’re always an Islander. That was my first team. That’s when everything started for me as a professional hockey player.”
He continued, “I’m always going to have great memories in my heart for the New York Islanders. They treated me with respect and they loved me on Long Island. Playing for other teams throughout my career, I never was treated so warm and with such a great appreciation from the fan base like I did on Long Island.”
The Islanders will honor the 1992-93 Patrick Division Champions on Saturday, Oct. 29 when the Isles faceoff against the San Jose Sharks at 7 p.m.