Dinosaur On Ice

Photo: Matt Hoyle

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.

A sampling of Darius Kasparaitis's unique form of ice ballet.Photo: From left, Bill Kostroun/AP; KRT; Reuters/Newscom

“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.

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.”

I ask about his previous marriage, to a Russian woman, with whom he has a daughter, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. “It’s not a good situation—the money. She doesn’t understand it’s just now, just a few more years.”

But Kasparaitis is not prone to melancholy. He hunches over the wheel and ponders some real-estate transactions. “Where is Williamsburg?” he asks. “Near the bridge? That’s a hot neighborhood. If you buy there now, the price will double in five years. I guarantee you. Because Manhattan is full, you know, and people have to move somewhere.”

We hurtle down the Saw Mill River Parkway—and suddenly, up ahead, traffic has come to a standstill. “What’s this?” Kasparaitis says. Behind us, Tyutin and Kondratiev are watching the movie; they’re no help. Kasparaitis begins studying the big GPS screen on his dashboard. “Watch this move,” he says, and turns off the highway. Suddenly we are in a pleasant suburb, guided by the GPS. “Is that a road?” Kasparaitis wants to know as we reach what might be a dead end. “It’s a road,” he decides, and we press forward. He’s right.

Now there is more traffic, and Kasparaitis studies his GPS. There seems to be no way to go but forward. At a green light, two old Jewish ladies are crossing the street very, very slowly. One of them has a cane. “Are they in New York or Florida?” Kasparaitis says indignantly. He lightly presses on his horn. The old lady with the cane shows Kasparaitis her cane. Kasparaitis is unimpressed and wags his finger at her in mock warning. Cane or no cane, we do have to make it to nap time.

Kondratiev suddenly lets out a howl of laughter. “What are you watching?” Kasparaitis asks in Russian.

Christmas,” Kondratiev answers, still laughing, “With the Kranks.” Kasparaitis nods approvingly.

Moments later, cruising down the Henry Hudson, Kasparaitis suddenly accelerates. “Watch this move,” he says, speeding up past 70, past 80. I think we are going to ram another car into the river. Instead, he steers us into a bump and the Explorer momentarily soars—it leaves the earth, I swear; Kasparaitis and I and the two defensemen in back are airborne on the Henry Hudson Parkway.

Five hours later, it is game time. The Madison Square Garden announcer welcomes us to the most famous arena in the world, and the onslaught of sound that is a game at the Garden begins. Almost immediately, a Minnesota Wild player is whistled off for interference, one of the most common penalties in the new NHL. The Rangers set up their power play. The plan is always the same: Get the puck to Jagr in the right slot, let him think of something. Sometimes Jagr shoots, sometimes he makes a pass. This time, he pulls up and shoots. The puck squirts through the goalie’s pads, sits in the crease for a moment, and then is knocked in by a flying Prucha: 1-0, Rangers.

“This is not old-time hockey anymore.Guys now, they take vitamins. They drink … protein shakes.”

Later in the period, a Ranger is called for hooking (most-common penalty No. 2). Kasparaitis comes on to kill off the penalty. Early in the shift, Minnesota forward Nick Schultz comes down the wing, and as the play develops, Schultz looks like he’s headed for Kasparaitis. “Tackle him!” a fan advises. The crowd holds its breath. But Schultz is too quick; he turns away from Kasparaitis at the last moment. Seconds later, however, a less wily Minnesota forward comes into Kasparaitis’s corner and gets creamed. The impact is palpable, and the game—one played by highly trained, highly paid professionals who practice every day in office parks, who watch films, whose lives are regimented and restricted to the perfection of their game, whose days and plays are planned well in advance, outlined, analyzed—is plunged into mayhem. The tight arrangement of the Wild power play breaks down. They are scrambling around the zone, wondering if they should retaliate with a hit, or start a fight, or wondering, perhaps, if they’re next. They spend the rest of the period distracted, trying to wreak revenge on Kasparaitis. New rules or not, this is Kasparaitis’s house and those are Kasparaitis’s corners. The Rangers win, 3-1.

Afterward, Kasparaitis sits in the locker room, satisfied. “I should drive you down every game,” he says. A pretty Russian television reporter and a pretty Lithuanian radio reporter are there to interview him on the occasion of his 800th game. “How does it feel?” asks the Russian reporter. “It’s good,” says Kasparaitis. “But I hope to play 1,000 NHL games, so … ” I take the opportunity to interview the Lithuanian reporter. Is Kasparaitis a national hero in Lithuania? Well, she says, he is one of only a handful of Lithuanian NHLers, but really the national sport is basketball.

“Can Kasparaitis return and become president of your country?”

“Well … ” says the Lithuanian reporter. We both look at Kasparaitis, gamely answering questions in Russian, his black eye from the broken nose in Buffalo almost, but not entirely, gone. “He plays for the Russian national team. So I don’t think so.”After listening to the dulcet, Canadian-inflected press conference of Coach Renney, I wander back into the main arena. The lights are already off, the ice is empty, the whole place is littered with beer and popcorn, everyone has gone home. The empty Garden, transformed on game nights into a total entertainment environment, has afterward no majesty, no magic. I duck my head back into the locker room. It is empty save for Kasparaitis, the Rangers’ multilingual bruiser, speaking into a microphone, at great length, in the ancient tongue of the Lithuanian people.

Dinosaur On Ice