By Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com
Following in the footsteps of his hometown hero, the KHL becomes the next step in the ascending career of Lithuanian blueliner Nerijus Alisauskas.
When Latvian KHL club Dinamo Riga got the new 2017/18 KHL season underway, it also coincided with the league’s sole Lithuanian representative making his debut at the big stage.
Following a successful off-season try-out, 26-year-old Alisauskas became a surprise late addition to the Dinamo Riga roster. A move which saw him become only the second Lithuanian to grace the KHL after Darius Kasparaitis, who played 26 regular season games for SKA St. Petersburg in 2008/09.
”I am happy to get the chance to play in the KHL and for me it doesn’t matter whether I am first or second. Kasparaitis was also my hero when growing up and I always wanted to achieve the same goals as him,” said Alisauskas, who got his first KHL point on board in his third game of the season with an assist in a 5-3 road win at Barys Astana, Dinamo Riga’s first victory of the season.
When Alisauskas picked up the game at the age of eight back home in the Central Lithuanian small town of Elektrenai, another one of its natives, Kasparaitis had long since left the nest and was at the peak of his powers across the Atlantic suiting up for Pittsburgh Penguins. Dainius Zubrus, the other Lithuanian with an NHL career, also hails from the town.
But while Kasparaitis and Zubrus had honed their skills during the Soviet Union times, Alisauskas was born in another era in the summer of 1991. Brought up in a once again independent Lithuania he was to have a more meandering road towards to the top.
After getting his baptism of fire at senior level in the Belarusian league with Latvian team Liepajas Metalurgs, Alisauskas found himself patrolling the blueline in Germany’s third tier for EV Fussen in 2013/14. Three years of solid displays in Kazakhstan’s top league ensued, before ahead of this season, Dinamo Riga’s head coach Sandis Ozolins came calling to offer Alisauskas an opportunity to shine at the next level.
A fine skater and equipped with a lethal one-timer, Alisauskas possesses qualities he hopes can be fully utilized in his new surroundings as Dinamo Riga aims to avenge for last year’s lacklustre overall display which saw them finish bottom of the pile in the Western Conference.
“I hope we will make the play-offs this season and on a personal level I hope I can grow as a player with as much ice time as possible,” said Alisauskas on a hectic season ahead where a lot will be at stake for both club and country.
In average he got 18:30 of ice time during seven KHL games. Only Canadian Karl Stollery and Latvian Guntis Galvins were on the ice more often among Dinamo Riga defencemen.
With Lithuania hosting the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas at the end of April next year, big things are in the pipeline for the southern-most Baltic country. Following four consecutive bronze medals at Division IB level under the guidance of head coach Bernd Haake, home advantage is hoped to give the team an extra edge as they aim to propel upwards.
“People are getting more interested in hockey so I am happy about it. As for our team, I believe Lithuania is already ready for the Division IA and this season will be the perfect time to get there,” said Alisauskas.
Alisauskas, who made his senior debut as an 18-year-old at the 2010 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I level, was among many key omissions from last season’s bronze-winning team at the Division IB in Belfast. While the Lithuanian federation hopes to entice big hitters such as Alisauskas, NHL veteran Dainius Zubrus, netminder Mantas Armalis and the Kumeliauskas brothers, Donatas and Tadas, to commit themselves for a gold medal push in Kaunas, perhaps the biggest name of them all is ready to once again step out in the limelight at the age of 45.
Kasparaitis aims at making his national team debut for Lithuania during the Baltic Challenge Cup played on home ice in Klaipeda this November while also offering a chance for Alisauskas to finally line up next to his role model.
“I’ve only practised together with him in the past, so now I can’t wait to play together with him,” said Alisauskas.