VILNIUS – Having got used to battling to stay in the division during the last couple of years, Lithuania now find themselves playing for silver against Croatia in their final game at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B. Their sudden upturn of fortune can be traced to the immense contribution of Dainius Zubrus, a presence felt on as well as off the ice.
With 1,169 regular NHL-season games and 92 play-off games under his belt, the 35-year-old speaks to IIHF.com about how he became the most successful player ever to wear the colours of Lithuania and his contribution to try and make the sport more prosperous in his home country.
Welcome home! Or is it right to still call Lithuania your home, after you just finished your 17th season in the National Hockey League (NHL)?
Yes, I am saying that to people but they don't really believe me. My hometown is Elektrenai, 50 kilometres from Vilnius, but I have recently bought an apartment in Vilnius for me and my family because I want to feel like home when I am here. Of course, having been in the United States all those years I probably feel more comfortable there, but it does feel like I am coming home when I return to Lithuania. It is still my people, I feel like I understand them and they understand me, so I am always happy to be here.
How frequently do you make your way back to Lithuania?
I am here every summer. As a President of the youth hockey league in Lithuania, I am trying to do the best I can to get hockey to a higher level than it is now. I am trying to promote the game so I also travel around the country to skate with kids, meet with politicians and for the last three years I have been bringing over hockey equipment as I was lucky enough to get the NHLPA to donate 3x50 sets. It is an expensive sport and without private investors it is tough to survive, especially during the last few years with the economical situation being the way it is.
And do you feel the development of hockey in Lithuania is heading in the right direction?
I believe we are. The reason I am the President of the youth hockey league is because that's where it all starts. The more kids playing hockey, the better the chances are for good results. We have almost doubled the amount of kids playing hockey in Lithuania and I think in ten years we will see our level being raised. Of course I would love to see more hockey rinks being built, because without those it is really tough to go higher up in hockey, but even with the conditions we have right now, I believe we are on the right track.
Looking at your own development as a youngster, how did you first pick up the game in your home town of Elektrenai, home of 14,000 people and a well-known hotbed for hockey?
I have a brother, Audris, who is two years older, and Aleksey Nikiforov, our first coach, visited his school when he was in second grade and I was still at home. The coach invited them to come down to the rink and try hockey and also bring along their brothers. It was Soviet Union times then and I was six years old. From day one I was basically skating with kids two years older than myself, so right away I had to push myself a bit harder. Eventually I was the best player on our team so I had to go somewhere else to get even better. I think it's ok to start playing hockey in Lithuania, but once you run out of competition you need to go somewhere else, and that's what I did.
Your next move was to Druzhba-78 in Kharkiv in what today is in Eastern Ukraine. Leaving behind your home and family in your early teens must have been very difficult?
At that time Kharkiv was probably the best team in Soviet Union for my age group, so I ended up going there. I hopped on a train, 24 hours later I came out in Ukraine and a kind of a new chapter started for me. I was 12 years old. The first couple of times I went there for a month or two, to see how I would adapt. I also went from being in a Lithuanian school at home to a school where every subject was in Russian. During the Soviet Union days we had been taught Russian at school twice a week, plus our TV channels were in Russian and Nikiforov, my first coach in Elektrenai was Russian too, so all those things helped me. I was put up with a family who also had a kid who played on my team, Gennadi Razin, who still plays for Donbass Donetsk in the KHL.
Roughly around the same time as you moved to Kharkiv, another youngster from Elektrenai, Darius Kasparaitis made his debut in the Soviet top division for Dynamo Moscow before later embarking on a successful career in North America. Did your paths ever cross during your early years in Elektrenai?
I knew about Darius ever since I was six or seven years old, and I actually skated with him, because the first year or so when I started playing hockey I still wasn't going to school. I would first skate with my own team and then in the afternoon I also skated with Kasparaitis' team who were six years older and way better, so they usually made me do something in the corner.
Your formative years as a hockey player began before the break-up of the Soviet Union. Do you think it helped your development in any way that you picked up the game while Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Union?
I think so. Hockey is an expensive sport and these days parents are facing a reality where they might not be able to afford to buy hockey equipment for their kids. In the system I started playing hockey in the equipment was all given to me. It might not have been of the best quality, but at least you had something. My family were not poor by any means, we lived a regular life in a regular apartment with my dad being an electrician and my mother working in a kind of a mall. We always had food on the table, but I am not sure if we would have been able to afford too many other things, so I think in a way the system at the time did help me out.
You have played almost 1,100 regular NHL-season games in a 17-year long career in North America suiting up for Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils. What are you best memories of your years in the NHL so far?
It will have to be reaching the Stanley Cup final twice (Flyers 1996-97 and Devils 2011-2012). Of course it is a huge disappointment when you lose. In my rookie year I was 18 years old when we got to the final and unintentionally you think you'll eventually get there again. I didn't get to the finals for another 15 years, so I'd say my second final series was probably more special, because I knew how hard it was to get there. I also played a lot of minutes then and I knew it might be my last chance to play at that level.
During all your years spent in North America, how have you kept track on the development in Lithuanian ice hockey?
There was a period when I didn't quite know how the whole federation was being run, so during that time I didn't want to get involved, because I didn't quite believe and trust the people that were in charge. But when Rolandas Bucys, an ex-player became President of the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation I started to get involved more and more. He was also one reason why I played for the national team during the lockout season 2004-05. Since then when I have seen how committed people are, I decided to start getting more involved.
You represented Lithuania at the 2005 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Nine years later you are in Vilnius representing your country for the second time during a world championship. How do these two experiences compare?
Being able to play in front of our own fans is a different feeling. Teamwise I really didn't know what to expect last time, and for some reason I think this team is sticking together more. Whether it is because of the young guys or because of we are playing in Lithuania I don't know, but I also think these guys want to win a bit more than last time, so it feels like this team can achieve more than last time I played for Lithuania.
Looking at your own role in the team, how does it change from playing in the NHL compared to representing Lithuania?
The last few games in the NHL before coming here I was playing centre. In some games I might play in all the different forward positions during the same game, depending on where the coach feels he needs me. During the last couple of years in the NHL I have also been used a bit more on the defensive side and I play quite a few minutes on the penalty kill. For Lithuania I am the captain and a go-to guy as I feel like I am pretty much involved in all parts of the game, whether it's power play or penalty kill. Our coach (Bernd Haake) told me we have been struggling a little bit with the faceoffs so he wants me to take most of them especially the ones in the key situations.
How do you look at Lithuania's performance at the 2014 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B? Are you happy with how the team has performed ahead of your deciding game against Croatia for the silver medal?
It is a different feeling when your last game is not for a championship or for the gold, but I guess you can say that this game will be for just that. Because from what I feel, not many expected us to compete for the medals, so I think for the fans and the players it would make it even a bit more special if we could win the game tomorrow and finish on a high. I think we are pretty equally matched with Croatia in every way, and I feel whoever has the best day will win the game.
And finally, how do you look ahead to the future?
I have two more years left on my contract (with Devils) and I want to play as long as I can and I want to win a Stanley Cup. I love the game, I love coming to the rink. I watch and analyse pretty much all my games, my shifts and things that I can do better. I take a bit of a break in the summer time, but I enjoy working out and getting in shape and do what is necessary to get yourself ready for the whole year, and when it's time to push yourself during summer training and you might not feel like it, I dream about winning the Stanley Cup and that won't change.