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In His Father's Footsteps

Mar 15, 2024
Written By: Mark Newman

Marco Kasper is following the advice of his Austrian defenseman dad in hopes of making his country proud.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

There are no guarantees in life, but Marco Kasper becoming a hockey player might have seemed like a foregone conclusion.

His father, Peter, had a long career in professional hockey in Austria before becoming a successful lawyer and agent. A reliable defenseman, he established himself in his hometown of Klagenfurt before playing for the top teams in Innsbruck, Vienna and Salzburg.

At age 24, his father spent one season in North America, playing for the Florida Everblades in the ECHL. His career was most distinguished by representing Austria in several international tournaments, including the 2000, 2001 and 2003 World Championships and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Thanks to his father's connections, it's no surprise that Kasper was at the rink at a very young age.

"I think the first time I was on the ice was when my dad played in Salzburg," he said. "I don't remember, but I guess I was only two and a half when I first stepped on the ice – not skating, just standing there – at least that's the story I know."

Kasper tried playing other sports growing up, but hockey was clearly his chosen sport.

"I played soccer, too," he said. "I also went downhill skiing a lot. I was pretty good, but I don't think my parents wanted me to do it because the insurance is high, it's not good for your knees, and all that stuff. I also got into tennis with one of my best friends. His dad was a tennis instructor, so we were playing a lot of tennis. But, for me, it was mainly hockey and soccer."

When his father finished playing, Kasper moved back with his parents to their hometown of Klagenfurt, the capital city of the southern Austrian province of Carinthia that is located on the eastern shore of Wörthersee, one of the warmest Alpine lakes where visitors enjoy swimming, boating, sunbathing and hiking.

Kasper's focus, however, was on water of the frozen variety. His father was a familiar presence at the rink during his youth playing days. "He's really important for me in my hockey career but also my personal life," he said. "I'm really close to my parents and my family [Kasper has two younger sisters, ages 17 and 13] and, in the beginning, my dad was always helping out. Back at home, we were always talking a lot of hockey."

His father didn't talk too much about his time in Florida – "He said he got to play a lot of golf, but the bus trips were kind of rough," Kasper recalled – but his dad was especially proud that he got the chance to represent Austria in the Olympics.

"He told me a little bit about it – like it's a cool experience getting to play for your country," Kasper said. "I know my dad played a lot of games for the national team and that's something I want to do as well. Whenever I get the chance to represent the country, it's awesome. Being able to wear the crest of the country is special and to go out there with all the guys from my country is really fun."

Kasper said he started getting really serious about what would become his chosen profession in his early teens, but not before he managed to demonstrate his acting chops with a role in the film, "Harri Pinter, Drecksau," a romantic comedy about a ne'er-do-well ice hockey coach that was filmed in Klagenfurt.

"I think I was 12 or 13 and they were looking for players from the junior teams to play hockey players in the movie," he said. "Me and a couple of friends decided to try out and I got the role. I had a couple of sentences to say, but they cut most of it. We were filming for a couple of weeks and it was a fun experience. The money was pretty good, too, at least for a kid."

Hollywood, however, will have to wait. At age 15, Kasper got to play a couple of games in the second-tier Austrian league, then saw action in the World Juniors as a 16-year-old. "I saw how good all those guys were and I started thinking that if I worked really hard, I could get up to their level," he said.

Kasper was thinking about coming to North America to play junior hockey in Canada when COVID-19 put that notion to rest. Instead, he chose to pack his bags for Sweden, which had decided to allow hockey to be played despite the pandemic.

"Both my mom and dad came with me the first couple of weeks," said Kasper, who quickly learned enough Swedish to survive on his own. "I was only 16, so they helped move all my stuff and helped me settle in. I was going to be living alone, so my mom wrote a cookbook of things I could make myself. I'm okay at cooking. I ate a lot of pasta, but chicken or a steak sometimes, too."

He was playing for Rögle BK in Ängelholm, a Swedish town that is a lot closer to Copenhagen, Denmark, than it is to Stockholm. The pace of the hockey was eye-opening. "My first few practices were like a different speed. I was like, 'Whoa, what's going on?' They were skating way more, so I had to adjust. The first few weeks were tough and then I got injured. It was a tough transition."

Kasper saw action in 10 games with Rögle BK during 2020-21 when the team's roster included Moritz Seider, who was on loan to the club for the balance of the season when the AHL and NHL delayed re-opening their respective leagues. "You could see how good he was going to be," Kasper recalled. "He was so tough to play against in practice and it was awesome seeing him develop his game up close."

Kasper returned to Rögle BK for the 2021-22 season and began to establish himself as one of the top young prospects in the game. As a 17-year-old playing against men sometimes a decade or more older, Kasper notched seven goals and four assists in 46 games. One of his teammates was current Griffins defenseman William Wallinder, who had been drafted by Detroit two years earlier.

Following his second season in Sweden, Kasper said he had no clue which team might pick him in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.

"I had a lot of interviews at the NHL Combine and had interviews in Sweden before the draft as well," he said. "I had no idea at all which team might draft me, but when I heard my name called by Steve Yzerman, it was really special."

The Red Wings selected Kasper with the eighth overall pick.

"It was awesome," he said. "Obviously, it's a great franchise with a lot of history, so it was really cool to go through the draft process and end up here. It was exciting, but I also know that the work is just starting and I will have to work hard, so hopefully I can be good enough when the time comes."

Kasper says he continues to draw on the advice that his father has imparted over the years. While his father did his best to be encouraging, he also pushed Kasper more because he knew how good his son was capable of becoming.

"Whenever I played bad, he would be harder on me than my teammates," he said. "It's tough sometimes when your dad is the coach, but in the end, it's a good thing, because he only wants the best for me. He pushed me hard, but I think that's good."

Kasper admits that he did not exactly follow in his father's footsteps. "He's a righty and played defense; I'm a lefty and always played forward," he said, noting that there was parental pressure to polish his two-way play at a time when others his age could only think about scoring.

"Growing up, it was a lot about how you should have fun at the game," he said. "But we also talked a lot about the importance of hard work." And if there was one specific thing that was drilled into his head, it was this: "Keep your feet moving. You've got to skate. That's one of the most important things I can remember."

Kasper doubled his point production during his third season in Sweden, tallying eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points in 52 games. He figured he was going to come to Grand Rapids after the end of the Swedish Hockey League season a year ago. Instead, the Red Wings surprised him by telling him to join the team in Detroit.

He made his NHL debut in Toronto on April 2, 2023, registering three hits and one shot during 14:59 of ice time in a 5-2 victory. It was a solid performance considering he played most of the game with one good leg.

"Of course, I was nervous," he said. "I was just trying to tell myself it's still hockey, only way faster. 'Just go out there and have fun.' That's what I told myself. And it was a really cool experience.

"But I got injured in the first period. I slid into the boards and I broke my kneecap. I thought it was just a bruise but it was worse, unfortunately. Still, it was a good experience to see how it is up there so you want to work to get back there."

Kasper knew things would not be easy. At age 19, he knew he would likely spend time in Grand Rapids before he got a chance again to play in Detroit. And he struggled early this season, recording only one goal in his first 19 games in a Griffins jersey.

"It's an adjustment for European players coming here," he said. "With the smaller ice here, everything is tighter. There are harder battles, so I was learning to go to the net quicker and not just pass on the outside.

"The coaches did a good job with video, showing me stuff in the beginning. I kept working hard in practice, competing in games by going to the net and doing the easy things right. I knew it would come."

In mid-January, Kasper felt like he turned a corner during back-to-back weekend games in Manitoba. He scored the overtime winner in a 5-4 victory over the Moose, then added two goals and an assist in a 4-3 win the following night. For his efforts in helping the Griffins rally from a three-goal deficit each night, he was selected as the Howies Hockey Tape/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Jan. 21.

"I feel the team is playing really good hockey, so I've got to give a lot of credit to my teammates," he said. "We've been figuring out how to play as a team. Sometimes the puck goes in, sometimes it doesn't, but it's important to keep working with your teammates and try to be the best every day."

Kasper calls his mom and sisters almost every day, but his first call is always with his dad, who will offer feedback after watching the games remotely. "He's still preaching to keep skating," he said. "Whenever I play good, I usually move my feet a lot. He's usually hard on me but when I'm playing good, he'll say, 'You had a good game.'"

Kasper is encouraged that he is making progress in polishing his play. "When I am playing good, I think I'm moving my feet, playing responsibly, being good defensively, winning my battles, and just making the right plays," he said.

His confidence is building and he feels he is starting to settle into his role with the Griffins. "It's a really good town and organization," he said. "We work hard every day in practice and we're playing good hockey. Right now I'm focused on where I am, focused on defense, and trying to win every game.

"I know if I'm good enough, I'm going to get another shot up there." And that, more than likely, is a foregone conclusion.