The new National Hockey League is a police state. After a long-simmering labor dispute led to the cancellation of an entire NHL season, the league enacted changes that pundits had been demanding for years.
Be careful what you wish for. The new rules have forced goaltenders into smaller pads, abolished the two-line offsides, expanded the offensive zones, and established zero tolerance for clutching and grabbing and hooking. This last change has had the most profound impact. To land in the penalty box in the old NHL, you needed to draw enough blood for fans in the upper deck to see. Now referees call penalties for infractions so subtle that the fans, hushed, don’t even know enough to yell “Bullshit!” and television commentators spend minutes studying the tape. “There it is,” they finally say over the replay. “Right . . . there.” And what’s more, in a sport in which referees, with their varying styles, had come to be as influential as the players, the league office has announced that anyone who fails to enforce the rules in their total stringency will be fired. All referees in the new NHL are now the same brute, mute henchmen. The new NHL, in short, is a tough place for Darius Kasparaitis.
But then Kasparaitis, the veteran New York Rangers defenseman, is a tough man. Born in Lithuania, he moved to Moscow at the age of 14 to train for the Soviet Olympic team. He was 20 when he came to the NHL thirteen years ago and immediately established himself as one of the most punishing body-checkers in professional hockey. In his very first season, he delivered an open-ice hip check on New Jersey Devils star forward and enforcer Randy McKay, knocking him out for nine games; in 1998, he planted a shoulder to the head of the giant young Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers, giving Lindros the first of his many concussions. Kasparaitis has always worn a long mane of shaggy, bright-blond hair that pokes out from under his helmet, and his large nose looks permanently misaligned. Though frequently joking in a kind of absurdist, Northern European manner and popular with the press, he was extremely unpopular with opponents, who could be seen emerging from encounters in the corners with Kasparaitis in a state of sheer rage, the replays revealing that Kasparaitis had, in the span of two or three seconds, cross-checked them in the neck and kneed them in the back of the thigh.
And therefore, in the old rough-and-tumble NHL, he was a vital asset—anyone could score, maybe, and lots of guys could fight, but it took someone special to step up and throw his entire body into the frequently larger (certainly taller) body of an oncoming attacker. And it was effective; it could change the pace and tenor of entire stretches of a game: When you are surging down the ice with your linemates and suddenly you turn to look and one of them has simply disappeared, it really makes you think. In 2002, in part at the insistence of then-Ranger Lindros, New York signed Kasparaitis to a six-year, $25.5 million contract.
That was reasonable money then for such a colorful character in such a media town; in the new NHL, whose strict salary cap has cut the Rangers’ payroll in half, it is extravagant, especially when you consider that of the seven Rangers defensemen, Kasparaitis is the only one under six feet tall, is the slowest, and has the worst shot. The referees, though they have their drone marching orders, can’t help but remember who Kasparaitis is and keep a special eye on him (he is now second on the team in penalty minutes). Furthermore, in a league desperately trying to clean up its image, Kasparaitis sometimes goes off-message. Last year, during the lockout, he played for a Russian professional club, and when I try to get him to admit he liked living in Russia, he refuses. “It’s so great because you can hire a hooker?” he says. “You can hire a hooker here.” Worst of all, though, the new rules inhibit his ferocious hitting. “The game is faster,” he told me one day after practice, “so even if you hit a guy, there might be another guy behind him to make a two-on-one. Believe me, I still want to hit guys.”
If Kasparaitis is in danger of obsolescence, he’s not in any danger of being shepherded quietly toward retirement. “He’s going to learn the hard way,” a New Jersey Devil once told Stan Fischler for his book Bad Boys: Legends of Hockey’s Toughest, Meanest, Most-Feared Players! “It’s going to be a long career, and it’s going to catch up with him.” When I ask Kasparaitis about this, he says no, he’s a veteran player and he gets respect: “It’s all nice and smooth now.” But earlier this season, in Buffalo, Kasparaitis found himself fighting for the puck along the boards with Sabres forward Daniel Briere. They skated together, shoulder to shoulder, until finally Kasparaitis dumped Briere onto the ice. No penalty was called, and Kasparaitis skated behind the net to retrieve the puck when suddenly, streaking all the way from the blue line, came Mike Grier, a 220-pound forward. Grier crashed into Kasparaitis just as he was releasing the puck, sending Kasparaitis flying face-first into the glass. Remarkably, he kept his feet, though he bent over in pain, his hand on his face—he had broken his nose against the glass. And now, as Grier went back up ice, Briere skated by and punched the smarting Kasparaitis in the back of the head.