Recently, I was able to interview Darius Kasparaitis and discuss his time in the NHL and with the New York Islanders. Kasparaitis was a fan favorite in the 1990s, known for throwing his body around and not caring about getting hurt. In comparison, Darius played like Matt Martin when he was on the Islanders. Darius Kasparaitis was drafted 5th overall by the Islanders in the 1992 NHL Draft. He played for the Isles for 5 seasons before getting traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
What was your favorite Islanders moment?
There were a lot of great moments with the Islanders. I think that playing my first game as an Islander and in the NHL against the New Jersey Devils, that was my top moment. I remember going to Long Island and I never expected to make the team. I think it was just so fast and it happened so fast, that was one of the cool things. To put on the Islander jersey and play in the NHL.
How were you able to be such a physical force, yet not being the largest guy on the ice?
It was just something in my style of play. Since I was a kid, I hated to lose so I think playing hockey was great for me as I could express my satisfaction with physical play. When I came to the NHL, I was able to play really physically. In Russia, I played semi-physical. Russia was moreso a position game and controlling the puck. In the NHL, it was so easy to hit people because the ice surface was so much smaller and it just worked out good for me in the beginning.
What is your funniest Islanders moment?
The funniest was when I bought my brand new speakers. I remember coming to the locker room one day and someone nailed them to the bench. I was so upset because I came from the Soviet Union, so it was very important for me. The guys thought it was funny so they nailed my speakers to the bench, so I couldn’t pick them up. I was so upset until I realized how funny it was. In the beginning, I was like wow; that was one of the welcome to the league moments. They did a lot of things to me as a rookie; they put vaseline in my helmet, they cut my skate laces, they would toothpaste in my trousers. I was a very happy-go-lucky guy, so the team loved me. I made fun of them, they made fun of me.
What was it like winning a gold medal?
It was amazing, just going to the Olympics was amazing. I was shocked that I actually made the team and I remember winning the semi finals and thinking how I just won a medal at the Olympics. I knew I would get silver for sure, but I still wanted the gold. It’s the same feeling you experience as winning the Stanley Cup. I know I never won a Stanley Cup, yet the guys who did will say that winning big tournaments like that is just amazing. It’s a feeling you can’t explain. You’re going to be an Olympic champion for the rest of your life, you’re an Olympic champion.
How much fun was it to play Mario Lemieux in the Playoffs?
It’s not fun, we were intimidated. We weren’t scared, but we knew how good the Penguins were. They had one two straight cups and they beat us during the regular season about 7-2. I knew how good they were, all I wanted to do was win more than one game and history is the rest. We won in seven games and it was great playing against the Penguins. No one gave us a chance against them, but we pulled it off. That’s impressive!
What was it like getting traded from the Islanders to the Penguins?
I was sad. I didn’t realize I was going to get traded. I knew I could get traded, but not that early in my career. I had a good fan base in Long Island, even Mike Milbury really loved me and he said, “I really like your style of play and how you present yourself in the locker room and during the game.” It was a shock for me, going to Pittsburgh where I was hated. They hated me in Pittsburgh. Going there, being with great players, it was so much of a relaxed atmosphere. In New York, when you lose a lot of games everyone was visible. Pittsburgh was like a vacation. The guys still played hard, but everyone was enjoying hockey a lot more.
What was it like to play for Al Arbour?
It was great! I was fortunate for my first coach in the NHL to be Al Arbour. He reminds me of a Russian coach. He was like a father to me; he was tough, but mostly very human to me. He loved me, I could sense that. He was give me sh** after the games, but the next day he wouldn’t never be mad at me. He would greet me “good morning” or make fun of me. He would make me feel comfortable. It was fun, Al was a legend. As a coach, I feel very fortunate for him to be my first coach in the league.
Do you still follow the Islanders?
Well of course I do. I follow all the teams I played for. I hope the Islanders have success as an organization, they’re going in the right direction. They have a great ownership group; as alumni, they invite as to a lot of the games and they are on the right track.
What was it like playing for the Lithuanian National Team at 45 years old?
It was great! I always had this feeling that I’d never be able to play for the national team as I knew it would take time for me to get ready. I was a little overweight, but I made a decision to do it and I feel fortunate going there and playing with all these kids that looked up to me when I was in the NHL. Some of them weren’t even born when I played in the league. Getting first place was unbelievable, it was the perfect ending to my hockey career. I was born playing for Russia in the big tournaments. After playing in the NHL, I was able to finish hockey out on top. I could sleep quietly through the night and know that I achieved all my goals; except winning the Stanley Cup. I had a great experience, it reminded me of how much I miss the game of hockey and how much I’m not part of hockey anymore. I’m 45, it is what it is. I love being there, I love playing there. Yet, I missed my children, I missed my wife. That’s a sign of guy that needs to stay home and take care of his children
What is your opinion of the Islanders hiring Lou Lamoriello to run their hockey operations department?
I think Lou is a great hockey mind; I like what he did in Toronto. It’s always great to have people with hockey experience as Lou to build the team. He will bring the winning culture back to Long Island. It’s a great move. As long as they know who is running the team, then that’s fine. It’s bad for a lot of people to give advice as it is hard to make a decision. If management is on the same page, then it’s a great move!