By Dan Marrazza
South Florida is known for a lot of things.
Sunny weather? Sure. Beaches? Definitely. Large retiree community? It’s always been there.
Although South Florida has the reputation for being a popular place to retire, it’s the only area of the United States where 43-year-old hockey players remain active.
Jaromir Jagr, perhaps you’ve heard about. Darius Kasparaitis, Jagr’s former teammate with the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers and fellow member of the 43-year-olds club, you may have forgotten.
Although it’s been nine years since he last played in the NHL and seven since he finished his professional career in the Kontinental Hockey League, Kasparaitis has resumed training from his Miami home in preparation of taking one last kick at the can with the Lithuanian national team.
It can’t really be called a comeback as much as trying to fulfill one final wish to represent his home country in an international tournament. Kasparaitis spent the prime of his career representing Russia and the Soviet Union internationally, rather than his native Lithuania.
Kasparaitis’ decision to primarily represent Russia occurred immediately before the 1992 Olympics, where players from the Soviet national team were allowed to compete together for the final time a few weeks after the Soviet Union collapsed. Having represented the Soviet Union the prior four years in an era when all Lithuanian-born athletes were part of the Soviet sport system, a then 19-year-old Kasparaitis chose to remain with his teammates to represent the Russian “Unified Team” at the Albertville Olympics and not join the Lithuanian program that was re-established in early 1992.
“1992 Olympics, I had a choice to walk away from the Olympic Games right before the Olympics to represent Lithuania or play for Russia in Olympics,” Kasparaitis recently told The Hockey News. “At the time, there had been no team in Lithuania, there was no hockey.
“I had a choice to play in Olympics (for Russia) or represent Lithuania (not in the Olympics). I made a choice to play on the highest level.”
The Unified Team that went to Albertville was one of the most dominant teams in Olympic history. It steamrolled its competition and defeated Canada – led by a young Eric Lindros – to win gold, serving as the launching point for several notable NHL careers, including that of Kasparaitis.
From there, Kasparaitis left Dynamo Moscow – a KGB-sponsored club that he joined shortly after first arriving in Russia at age 14 – the following fall to join the New York Islanders, where he forged a reputation as one of the most feared bodychecking defensemen in the NHL.
Kasparaitis solidified this reputation after leaving the Islanders throughout a 14-year career that included stops with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Colorado Avalanche and New York Rangers, as well as several appearances with the Russian national team.
“I played in three more Olympics representing Russia,” Kasparaitis said. “In the back of my mind, I always had it that maybe one day I play for Team Lithuania in at least one game in some kind of official tournament.”
Besides having to work himself back into playing shape after spending the better half of a decade out of hockey, Kasparaitis is balancing a real estate career in South Florida with being the father of five children, four of whom are under the age of seven.
Not to mention, for Kasparaitis to play for Lithuania after years of representing Russia, he’s had to travel to Lithuania each of the past two years to participate in local games to acquire eligibility.
“You have to wait five years after you represented another country originally,” Kasparaitis said. “Then I’d have to play in a local championships in Lithuania for three years to qualify. I go to Lithuania once a year, twice a year to play in a national championship. Get a few games under my belt. I have to play one more year. The team I represent is called the Hockey Punks.”
Taking the road back to notable international competition on a team called the Hockey Punks?
“The level, it’s not bad,” Kasparaitis said. “But if I can still play after being retired from hockey almost seven years and score goals (Kasparaitis has two goals in two games with the Hockey Punks), which I never did in any league… it’s not the most high-level hockey. If I go on higher level and represent the national team of Lithuania, we’d play against younger (better) guys.”
Kasparaitis doesn’t intend to suit up against NHL players in the Olympics again or anything like that. In fact, Lithuania has to win two four-team tournaments to even qualify for the 2018 Olympics, starting next month in Budapest, Hungary.
Kasparaitis won’t be eligible in time to play in February’s Olympic qualifiers. He’s more aiming for a world championships in 2017 or 2018, even if it’s in the B or C division.
“I think if I really want to do it, it’s possible,” Kasparaitis said. “But time is ticking. With family, kids, it’s getting harder to come back. I probably have to lose 40 pounds. I play in Miami. We have lunch hockey and I play there maybe 2-3 times per week.
“If everything goes well, I hope I can make my dream come true and represent Lithuania in one official tournament.”