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Catching Up with Darius Kasparaitis

Former Penguins defensemen spoke with Pensburgh about his experiences and what he's up to today after being inducted into the Russian Hockey Hall of Fame last week for his contributions as one of the best to play for Russia.

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That's how Darius Kasparaitis entered the league for the New York Islanders during the 1992-1993 season. He was selected by the Islanders as the 5th pick overall in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft and quickly made a name for himself as defensemen that did more than simply just play his position, he drove you nuts.

While many hockey fans are familiar with the stories about Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov playing in Russia and what it took to play for the Red Army in their younger days, Kasparaitis had to be tough. It was part of who he had to be in his youth to just make it.

"There was a lot that I went through in my life as a hockey player that the others had, too, experiences but then I also had experiences that the others really didn’t deal with. I came from a small town in Lithuania and moved to Russia at 14 with no parents. I didn’t speak any Russian because it wasn’t spoken in my town. The kids made fun because of my accent and because I was from a different republic. I really had to fight for my survival in Russia in the beginning. Eventually I made friends and had a bunch of great coaches. But I think what any kid who leaves home at early age to try and play professional sports needs to know that it’s a hard thing to do. I know that those other guys had tough coaches and lives but if you want to have success you have to be willing to sacrifice a lot and that’s a characteristic of being a good player. Sacrifice a lot but learn from it."

Kasparaitis represented the Soviet Union, Unified Team and Russia in ten different major tournaments winning the gold medal for the Unified Team during the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. This was one of the best teams to ever play in the Olympics as Kasparaitis played with future NHLers Alexei Zhitnik, Andrei Kovalenko, Alexei Kovalev, Igor Kravchuk, Vladimir Malakhov, Dmitri Mironov, Dmitri Yushkevich, Alexei Zhamnov, and Sergei Zubov.

Last Friday, this kid from Lithuania was inducted into the Russian Hockey Hall of Fame to recognize him as one of the greats for Russia.

As for what it meant to him to received such an honor.

"It means a lot to me. It means that one country that I played for recognized me as an athlete who contributed to the sport and appreciated me as a player. It’s truly a huge honor to be inducted, especially coming from a little town in Lithuania and being among the greats of Russian hockey. It’s an amazing feeling and a cool thing to tell your children when they get older."

It was great to see Kasparaitis recognized for his efforts as quite often, he wasn't given credit for his hockey ability due to his playing style that led to those controversial moments that seemed to always find their way. He is remembered far more by hockey fans for his agitating ways than how he defended a winger down the wing or a bull around the net.

The pinnacle of his agitation came early for Kasparaits during his rookie season in the second round of the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was assigned by head coach Al Arbour to shadow and agitate Mario Lemieux. Arbour saw it as the only way his Islanders could slow down the Penguins considering they were the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions and their captain had just finished the regular season winning the Art Ross Trophy.

Kasparaitis was the most hated man in Pittsburgh as this video shows him going after Lemieux in 1993.

Three years later, Craig Patrick did the unthinkable trading Bryan Smolinski for Andreas Johansson and Kasparaitis.

"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."

It didn't take long for Kasparaitis to become one of those beloved players in Pittsburgh with his hard-nosed enthusiastic personality on and off the ice.

When you think of Kasparaitis in a Penguins jersey, two significant plays come to mind.

March 7, 1998 at Civic Arena, Penguins vs Flyers - The Hit on Eric Lindros

Kasparaitis' favorite moment - Take a Swim Kaspar

"Definitely scoring the Game 7 overtime goal against Buffalo when I was playing for Pittsburgh."

Today, Kasparaitis is the President and Co-Founder for Verzasca Group, responsible for overseeing 10 million square feet of property development in Florida, Europe, and Russia.

How did all those experiences in life and hockey prepare him in his new role?

"I think one element I took with me is the importance of being a good team player and part of a team. Any company, no matter where you are, is made up of different individuals, all of whom have the same goal to work towards. In hockey it’s obviously winning each game and ultimately the Cup. At Verzasca, the goal is building buildings and finding people to live in and love the homes you’ve built for them. But it’s also about having people help you and learning how to work together – in hockey and at Verzasca. I was a good leader playing hockey and I try to be that same kind of leader at Verzasca. I lead by example, have a good sense of humor and I make it a point to have a relaxed atmosphere at work. We all have lives outside Verzasca but it’s good to have a life inside, too, where we can all hang out and have a good time while still working to accomplish our goal."

Whether Kasparaitis was knocking over stars as a hockey player or building dreams as a businessman, he did it his way and with a smile.