Ah, to be young, Rich and Insane. Actually, if recent hockey history tells us anything, the only thing better is to be young, rich and insane—and Lithuanian. You remember Lithuania: land of sugar beets, spurned communists and, most recently, a blissfully unhinged 21-year-old New York Islander defenseman named Darius Kasparaitis, who's spreading his idea of goodwill throughout the NHL.
But it's no small responsibility, this cultural-ambassador business. Everywhere you go in the New World—Detroit, Winnipeg, Tampa Bay—fans are going to assume, because they've never really seen one before, that all 3.7 million Lithuanians are exactly like you. Which is to say that after seeing Kasparaitis skate, NHL fans will figure that all Lithuanians howl, throw their arms in the air and yell "I love Amerika!" after scoring a goal...in pregame warmups.
Or that they find it "fun" to ram their heads into the largest opposing players they can find, even if those players happen to be named Lemieux and Lindros and haven't been hit so hard since the day they met their mothers' obstetricians.
Or that upon delivering said blow, they attempt to trash-talk in a sort of mutant hybrid of Lithuanian and English, as in "Go to hill, Hull!"
Or that off the ice, they promptly impale their cars on light poles, then walk away, high-fiving.
Or that as recreation, they lead police on drunken, high-speed chases.
Or that on off days, they routinely challenge the world record for Spending the Most Money in the Shortest Period of Time, Particularly on Items That Are Completely Unnecessary.
Poor Lithuania. So many problems—unemployment, soaring crime, no SportsCenter—and now this. And yet...and yet...maybe this second-year psycho with a head as hard as a week-old Big Mac isn't such a bad guy to have around. He's a great skater, a ferocious defender and a genuinely nice fellow, albeit one who sometimes shows affection by reshuffling your spinal cord. "Everyone loves the guy," says Islander left wing Derek King. So it's not true then? "Oh, sure it's true. He's reckless. He gets radar lock on a guy, lowers his head and goes for it. It's natural for him."
Not so the language. Considering that Kasparaitis's English consisted pretty much of "puck," "goal" and "major-misconduct penalty" when he came to America last year, he has made great progress. But it's hard to learn a new language, especially when you spend so much time sitting in those penalty boxes, with no TV and nothing to read. "Very hard," Kasparaitis says, relaxing after a practice at Nassau Coliseum. He's wearing a designer shorts-and-T-shirt ensemble, thick gold jewelry and, on his nose, a fresh gash the size of an anchovy. "First thing I hear: Hard player. Play dirty. Kick. Other teams not like me because I hit star players. I say, 'Bigger players easier to hit.' "
Anyway, he knew playing hockey would be hard. Knew it back when he ran wild for the Moscow Dynamo team and, in 1992, the Unified Team that beat Canada for the gold medal at the Olympics. That's when the NHL people, the men with the clipboards and stopwatches, started coming around, smiling their rich-guy smiles. Hell, it had always been hard. Hard is good. It was hard when, at 14, he signed with Dynamo out of tiny Elektrenai (pop. 25,000), where, early on, his working-class parents figured the one thing a hyperactive kid like him needed was a large wooden stick; it was hard when Lithuania said he couldn't play there anymore if he joined the Unified Team. Everything was hard, including his head, and that was fine. He was a hard guy—so hard that toward the end of a sloppy period during the 1991 World Junior Championships, he punched the goalie. His own goalie.
"After, he play better," says Kasparaitis, whom the Islanders made the fifth selection in the '92 draft. "I was...what is word, frustrated? Yes! Frustrated. Understand words better if go slowly."
O.K., then let's go slowly.
See Darius Skate
Kasparaitis is, as they say, a practice player. This is good and bad. It's good because, as Islander coach Al Arbour artfully phrases it, "Darius has a lot of energy." Kasparaitis also has a great attitude, which is good, and he plays hard, which is very, very good. But there's that thin line that separates practice from games—a line that, to Kasparaitis, just keeps moving. This is the bad part. "He gets excited," says Islander defenseman Tom Kurvers. "We've done little one-on-one drills, playing keep-away, and he becomes, like, possessed. It can be scary."
"I see player with puck in corner, I hit," says Kasparaitis. "Teammates tell me, 'Can't hit hard in practice,' I try to remember, but sometimes I hit anyway. 'Sorry,' I say, but no good."
Many Islanders now say they no longer have to assume the fetal position every time the 5'11", 190-pound Lithuanian comes out for his morning drills. He's less likely to pop veteran forward Benoit Hogue in the back of the head just to keep things interesting, perhaps because he's tired of apoplectic teammates pinging pucks at him. "I listen good," he says.
Well, up to a point. In a preseason practice Kasparaitis whacked Dave Chyzowski on the knee with his stick, whereupon they scuffled on the ice, each drawing a generous share of the other's blood. That's how Kasparaitis got the anchovy on his face. "We fight," Kasparaitis later chirped, smiling as if the two had spent the day making origami together. "Not big thing. Just hit each other's faces."
In other words, the NHL in a nutshell.
One night later Kaspar & Co. were able to bludgeon somebody else, which must have been good news to management. The Isles' first exhibition game was against the Boston Bruins in Albany, N.Y., where the fans showed up wearing KASPARAITIS jerseys and chanting "Da-ri-us! Da-ri-us!" anytime their man so much as inspected his cuticles. They weren't disappointed, either. In just one period Kasparaitis barreled head-on into poor right wing Steve Heinze, jarring loose more saliva than you'd see in a week in a New York subway; dived, prone, to try to block a slap shot from the point; yanked down right wing Scott Lindsay and slapped off his helmet; assisted on a dandy Islander goal; and received two minutes for depositing his elbow on the person of defense-man Don Sweeney. "I get tired a little at end," explained Kasparaitis, who perhaps ate one too many blintzes over the summer. "But I play O.K. Have fun."
Sure, it's always fun for him. Opposing players would beg to differ—including Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who found himself on the receiving end of a Kasparaitis hip check during the playoffs last season. So what if the previously untouchable Penguin had just returned from treatment for Hodgkin's disease. New York Ranger Mark Messier also got some rough treatment from the Islander last year and, like Lemieux, practically begged Kasparaitis to fight. Then there's the entire New Jersey Devil team, which vowed vengeance last season after getting Dariused for a night. Actually, the threats became so grave that Kasparaitis's mother, Laima, called from Lithuania in tears after reading about them. "She think they really going to kill me. Like with gun." Kasparaitis recalls. "I tell her, 'Not kill me, really. Just hit me a lot.' That's hockey. Man game. No crying. She feel better."
See Darius Drive
Ram your head into large things often enough, and bad things happen. It started last spring in the playoffs as Kasparaitis left Nassau Coliseum after practice during the Penguin series. He climbed into his black BMW, turned on the ignition, cranked up the stereo, began singing along, put that baby into gear, hit the gas, his what-me-worry smile stretching from ear to ear...and slammed into a light stanchion, fairly wilting it. Oh, so that's what you Americans call reverse! Even though Coliseum workers had to bring out a tow truck to disimpale the Beemer from the pole, does it surprise anyone that Kasparaitis didn't even get a scratch?
Several weeks before the parking-lot business, Kasparaitis drove some buddies into Manhattan for a little revelry—and, being way too naive to appreciate when something is clearly too good to be true, found a parking space right smack in midtown. Then they went and did whatever it is hockey players do for fun. When they returned for the car, it was gone. Towed. So the whole crew cabbed it across town to retrieve the thing. The line of scofflaws was long, so Kasparaitis did what any self-respecting New Yorker would do in this situation: He lied. "Must catch plane for game!" he shouted. "Play for Islanders! Plane leaving!" The clerk let him cut the line, and Kasparaitis paid his $200 and beelined it back to midtown.
This time Kaspar the Friendly Host parked near the Waldorf-Astoria. No fool, he left the car where he could sec it, right out there, right next to the curb with the big yellow stripe. He had a good laugh when, walking down the street, he watched a truck towing a BMW that looked just like his. It was funny for about 12 seconds. Suddenly he was racing after the truck for five city blocks, frantically waving a fistful of twenties and shouting, "Stop car! I pay! Have money!" Tough latkes, said the tow-truck driver, and again it was time to meet that magnanimous impound clerk, who wasn't so magnanimous anymore. People are like that. "What happened to your flight?" the clerk asked.
It was a very long wait.
And that wasn't even the coup de grace, which was neither funny nor harmless. One night in June, Kasparaitis drained one or seven beers with friends at a Long Island tavern until the wee hours, then hopped into the ill-fated BMW. Big mistake. It wasn't long before certain blue and red lights appeared in the rearview mirror. Did he signal and pull over? Did he begin sobbing and apologizing to the cops? Nope, Kaspar left rubber, pushing 100 through a small town before finally giving up at 4:25 a.m. His blood-alcohol level was reportedly twice the legal limit, and he's due in court next month. "Stupid," Kasparaitis says, shaking his head. "Very stupid. Bad. Not smart. Could get killed. Could kill other person. Don't like talking about it."
Neither, for that matter, do the Islanders. Arbour says only, "We've talked about it, and Darius knows what to do about it." Pause. "I think."
See Darius Spend
When he stepped off the plane from Moscow last year, Kasparaitis had one jacket, one pair of pants and one mission: to never have one of anything. And he was definitely in a position to satisfy that urge, what with his $450,000-a-year contract. Boy, was he. Armani, Versace, Boss—Kasparaitis was on a first-name basis. On a good day he would toss $5,000 on three or four items before lunch. "I buy everything," Kasparaitis says, banjo-eyed. "Not look at tags. Just buy. Grab dollars, throw them on desk. Say, 'This, this, this. Thank you."
"We never knew Lithuanians dressed so well," says Kurvers.
Then there's the matter of the telephone. A sociable sort, Kasparaitis would get to feeling homesick during his first year. So he would call Lithuania. Several times a week. For an hour a pop. "Then he discovered the cellular phone," Islander forward Marty McInnis recalls, laughing. "He took it on the team bus and would dial Moscow from there, laughing and talking in Lithuanian." Monthly phone tab: $1,000. "Then," McInnis adds, "he stopped laughing."
Play Ed McMahon for too long, of course, and things will catch up to you. By the middle of last season, it was pretty clear that Kasparaitis was blowing it all, although he did have something to show for it: a swanky condo, the BMW, enough evening wear to clothe the Southampton country club set for a year. His agent, Mark Gandler, wisely steered him to a financial adviser, who now has him on a budget. "Save money," Kasparaitis says. "Very good."
Could it be that the young Lithuanian is, dare we say it, maturing? He's spending more time at home with his Russian fiancèe, Irina Kouznetsova. He and his Russian èmigrè pals go bowling. (Wicked spare, Alexei!) And he's into American movies, which helps his English and keeps him away from innocent light stanchions. "I see Slapshot" he says. "Brothers get in fight before game. Like very much."
He's young. Give him time.