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Dinosaur On Ice

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A sampling of Darius Kasparaitis's unique form of ice ballet.  

“No,” Kasparaitis says when I ask later if this proves he’s a marked man. “That was just a small punch.”

When they’re not on the road, the Rangers practice every morning at a facility in an office park in Greenburgh, New York, next door to a building filled with biomed start-ups: Aton, Progenics, Regeneron. The facility has a closed parking lot in back and, at the front, a semi-circular corporate reception desk. The visitor walks down a hallway that is like any other office-building hallway, opens a security door, and only then sees an ice surface, and the six daily beat writers who loyally attend every practice and every single game. After practice, the players lift weights, get fixed up, watch films. On game days, they drive down to the city after practice and check in to a hotel across from the Garden for nap time.

The conductor of this daily procession is the Rangers’ professorial coach, Tom Renney. Once upon a time, people were shocked when the efficiency theorist Frederick Winslow Taylor took a stopwatch to the factory floor; the new breed of professional hockey coach takes management theory to hockey practice (as well as a stopwatch). Handsome, pleasant, extremely well-spoken, with a strong Canadian accent (“It’s beeeen a proh-cess,” he says, of many things), he conceives of every player as a cog with its particular function in the complex Rangers machine. There are defensemen who work well on the power play; others who have the potential to do so—“Now, that’s a shot we can work with,” he says in a postgame press conference of Maxim Kondratiev, one of the two rookie Russian defensemen. Whereas Kasparaitis—well, he does not, in Renney’s words, “have the competency that suggests power play. He’s more a cantankerous-type player.” What this means is that Kasparaitis wrecks people, causes pandemonium, disrupts the opposition’s mental balance. But Renney is not sentimental about it.

Under his direction, the Rangers are the biggest surprise in hockey. Picked by Sports Illustrated to finish dead last in the entire league, as of this writing they are second in their division. It is hard to quantify Kasparaitis’s contributions to this: He leads the team in hits and blocked shots, but his minutes are the lowest of any regular defenseman. Easier to see are the phenomenal performances of Henrik Lundqvist, the rookie goaltender, and Jaromir Jagr, the best player in the league. Tall, dark, with a boyish face unblemished by broken noses, Jagr is a magician; he creates combinations on the ice that the other players clearly hadn’t even considered. At the age of 33, he leads the league in points and has been involved in fully one-half of the Rangers’ goals this season, a remarkable proportion.

In the postgame locker room, when reporters gather intimately around him and he tries, genuinely, to verbalize his understanding of a game he has mastered, Jagr expresses regret at how late in his career the rule changes have come. “Have you ever played this well?” he is asked by Stan Fischler. “Ah, Stan,” says Jagr, putting his arm around the white-bearded Fischler. “When I was younger, I was stronger, I was faster. If they had these rules ten years ago . . . ” Jagr wasted his life in the labor camp of clutch-and-grab. But now he is free—and by all accounts, the moody Jagr is happier than he’s been in years.

Actually, three things make Jagr happy. One is bad rock and roll (he is Czech). Another is other Czechs—the Rangers acquired five of them in the off-season, plus a Slovak. And the third thing that makes Jagr happy is Kasparaitis. Usually Kasparaitis does not hang around for the postgame chat with reporters, but whenever Jagr, surrounded by the media beast, sees his friend, he calls out to him—“Kaspar!”—and makes a joke for his benefit, directs his comments Kaspar’s way. They are co–assistant captains, Jagr having turned down the full captaincy before the season on the grounds of not knowing enough English. After practice, they sometimes sit on the bench, watching the few remaining players on the ice and discussing the team. Jagr is single and lives on the Upper West Side with his roommate, Petr Prucha, the Rangers’ goal-scoring rookie. Kasparaitis is married and lives in Westchester. Jagr is an offensive genius with one of the best wrist shots in hockey, whereas Kasparaitis is a catastrophe in the offensive zone. In the Rangers’ now-legendary late-November overtime shootout against the Washington Capitals, in which fourteen shooters came and went until Marek Malik, the six-foot-five Czech defenseman, finally won the game for the Rangers with a circus shot through his legs, Jagr kept vocally nominating Kasparaitis to take a shot. Renney pretended not to hear.


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