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Dinosaur On Ice

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Jagr and Kasparaitis are friends. Yet what exactly does it mean for players in the new NHL to be friends? Their lives are severely restricted both by the rules set by the team and, more important, by the rules they set themselves in order to survive in an extremely competitive, fully globalized game. I ask Kasparaitis if he has much of a social life outside of the Rangers. “There is nothing really outside hockey,” he says. “I was traded a lot. And, you know, I have to be here every morning at nine o’clock. I am in bed by midnight.”

“But there’s a lot of going to strip clubs at least?”

Kasparaitis shakes his head. “This is not old-time hockey anymore,” he says. “Guys now, they take vitamins.” All the syllables of this ugly American word are pronounced with a gentle Lithuanian disdain. “They drink . . . protein shakes.”

Kasparaitis, according to his coach, is a “cantankerous-type player.” What this means is that Kasparaitis wrecks people.

As Kasparaitis explains this, Jagr walks by, waving some tickets he’s just received to a show that night at Madison Square Garden. “Where you going?” Kasparaitis calls out.

“Bon Jovi!” Jagr calls back happily. “Want to come?”

Kasparaitis shakes his head, no thanks. So his friend is a bit of a dork. He is one of the greatest dorks in hockey history.

On a recent Monday, I make my way up to Greenburgh to catch Kasparaitis after the pregame skate. He is coming off his worst game of the season, a debacle against Pittsburgh during which he was always half a step behind and twice penalized. On one play, he slid back to block a pass and then, getting up, stumbled into the net and knocked it off its moorings. Two minutes for delay of game.

After practice, Kasparaitis is one of the last players to come off the ice. Tyutin and Kondratiev, the Russian rookies, both 22, both over six feet tall, dark and broad-shouldered, are waiting for him. Tyutin has some news for Kasparaitis. “Yesterday I got my hair cut by one of those, what do you call it, a transvestite. No lie. A black one.”

Kasparaitis responds with an unprintable suggestion, and Tyutin and Kondratiev laugh. They seem to follow Kasparaitis’s cues, hang on his words. The Rangers are rebuilding, and perhaps it says something about the particular quality of the future they envision that they’ve kept Kasparaitis—a role model, to be sure, but not exactly in the traditional role-model way. Tyutin, a tough-looking guy from the steel town of Izhevsk, has been playing well and is probably the best young defenseman on the club, whereas the boyish Kondratiev has been struggling: He has a good shot, but he has been making mental errors in his own zone. Paired for the time being with Kasparaitis, they are at this point in the season the Rangers’ most nerve-racking defensive pair.

After the players eat a quick meal, we all pile into Kasparaitis’s massive Ford Explorer. Kondratiev and Tyutin sit in back, I sit up front. “Okay, so you pay for gas,” Kasparaitis says to me as we get in. He reaches back and pulls down the little monitor in the ceiling between the back and front seats. “Okay, ducklings,” he tells Kondratiev and Tyutin, “we’re going to interview up here. You watch a movie. Take whatever you want. Here, Bad News Bears, you’ll like that.”

Kondratiev has his own ideas about this and starts going through the stack of DVDs. Tyutin repeats “ducklings” and shakes his head, chuckling.

Up front, I ask about the Pittsburgh game. Kasparaitis doesn’t remember it. He says, “It means it probably was average game for me.” I ask him if he was worried that he’d be let go before the season began. He says yes and no—that he would have been fine with being bought out, but he wanted to stay, because he likes New York. What does he do after games? He goes with his wife to a hip restaurant, like Nobu.

“Do people scream your name?”

“I don’t think most people know we have a hockey team in New York.”

Kasparaitis is a mixture of professional athlete-speak and a very worldly kind of honesty. Lately, he’s been worried about money. “I can’t afford to live here,” he says. “You live in any other part of the country and you think with million dollars you can buy a mansion. You can’t get anything here for million dollars. It’s crazy!”

“But you make $3.3 million a year.”

“I can afford it now. I’m a professional athlete. After hockey, I won’t be able to live here. I pay $50,000 a year in real-estate taxes. Even if I coach, or do something like that, you don’t make very much money being a coach.”


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