Defenseman Darius Kasparaitis remains a legend among Islanders fans who remember his big hits, endless energy and ability to drive star players, particularly Mario Lemieux, to the brink of complete emotional and mental breakdowns on the ice.
In his homeland, Kasparaitis is remembered for all that as well as his many years of service with the Russian National Team, and the native of Lithuania was honored this month with induction into the Russian Hockey Hall of Fame.
"Playing professional hockey was always a dream of mine but to cap my career off with four trips to the Olympics, during three of which I was able to help my team take home the medals in, that was the true pinnacle of my career and I'm so grateful to be recognized for these achievements," Kasparaitis said in a press release.
Drafted fifth overall by the Islanders in 1992, Kasparaitis became an immediate fan favorite by constantly harassing the dominant Lemieux in the 1993 playoffs despite being a rookie. He was fearless, relentless and unpredictable and it absolutely drove Mario bananas as the Islanders ended the Penguins' bid for three straight Stanley Cups.
After five years with the Islanders, Kasparaitis was, inconceivably, traded to the Penguins by GM Mike Milbury, who made the inconceivable reality on an almost daily basis. In a great interview with Pensburgh about his Hall of Fame induction, Kasparaitis talked about his terrifying introduction to a former enemy camp.
"I was very shocked and sad to learn that I was traded from New York. At the same time, on my first day in Pittsburgh, I was very afraid and didn't know what to expect given my history with the Penguins. I remember going into the locker room on the first day and Lemieux came over and shook my hand and joked around saying that now we're going to have to wear shoulder pads during practices because of who I was and my reputation."
Kasparaitis finished his NHL career by spending four years with the Rangers. In an audio interview with Elite Sports NY, he talks about playing on both sides of the rivalry, the need for patience in building the Islanders fanbase in Brooklyn and rooming with a young Rangers goalie named Henrik Lundqvist.
His 28 career Olympic games is a record for Soviet/Russian-born players, and he was previously named an Honored Master of Sports, which was Russia's highest athletic honor before the Hall of Fame opened in 2014. He has won gold, silver and bronze medals in his four trips to the Olympics.
Always brutally honest in interviews, Kasparaitis was never one to hide his feelings and often lived life on the edge. But his homeland clearly means a lot to him. In this ESPN special from the early 1990's, Kasparaitis re-visits Russia and gets emotional talking about the sad state it was in back then and the personal toll it took on him. After the special aired, he would play for Russia in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Olympic games. (By the way: incredibly, the special's host and narrator is one Mike Milbury.)
Reports surfaced this January that he was trying to make a comeback to play with the Lithuanian National Team, something he never had a chance to do in his younger days. If one 43-year-old could pull it off, it would be him.
These days, Kasparaitis is the president of a real estate development company in South Florida called the Verzasca Group. If he brings half as much energy, personality and drive to real estate as he did to hockey, you can expect Florida to be covered end-to-end in condos very shortly.
Congrats to Darius, a true one-of-a-kind hockey character, a star in two countries and an Islander for the ages.