Wednesday

Vladimir Konstantinov

Vladimir Konstantinov used to physically punish his opponents with his aggressive, hard hitting style. Now he touches the hearts of all hockey players and fans alike, as he battles to regain his life.

"The Vladinator" was a huge part of the 1997 Detroit Red Wings team that won the Stanley Cup. A Scott Stevens type defender, he was the runner up in the Norris Trophy race as best defenseman in the league. He excelled in the 1997 playoffs as perhaps the best defensive d-man in quite some time in league history. And on June 7, 1997, he and his teammates realized the greatest moment of their professional lives, as they hoisted the Stanley Cup high above their head.

Six days later, tragedy struck. Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov and Wings equipment trainer Sergei Mnatsakanov were all injured when the limousine they were traveling in crashed into a tree. Fetisov escaped with minor rib injuries. Mnatsakanov and Konstantinov both suffered massive head injuries that nearly cost them their lives.

After much rehabilitation, Vladi is still struggling. He can barely speak and has little recollection of his past. Though he has great trouble moving, he has eschewed his wheelchair in favor of a walker.

His rehabilitation process is nothing short of exhausting. His family and teammates spend time with him, hoping that those he loved would spark some kind of memory of his past. His family and the Red Wings spent countless hours with him. His Russian teammates spoke to him in Russian. He can only offer a few words in return..

They tried everything, from hockey videos to personal artifacts to try to help out their comrade, but nothing worked, except for maybe the Stanley Cup. While it is perhaps just a legend, the story has the Wings bringing the Cup to Vladi's hospital room. For the first time, the Russian defenseman seemed fixated on something, as if he remembered it. He stared at the Cup, not saying a word or showing any emotion, but it was a big sign that Vladi was starting to come around.

Konstantinov's (and Mnatsakanov's) tragedy and attempted recovery drew the already tight Red Wings even closer. They dedicated the 1997-98 season to their teammate and trainer, inspired by their personal battles. When the Wings repeated as Stanley Cup champions in 1998, Vladi was brought out on to the ice in his wheel chair wearing his number 16 jersey. After NHL commissioner Gary Bettman presented the Stanley Cup to Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, Stevie Y immediately handed the Cup to Konstantinov. His teammates wheeled Konstantinov around the ice with the Cup lying in his lap as the Red Wings skated their traditional victory lap. There was no doubt Vladi was as big a part of this team as any other Wing.

Sadly, days after this heart-warming tribute occurred, Konstantinov's wife admitted that Vladimir had no recollection of the event. But he always knew he was part of something special.

Konstantinov spent 7 years with the Soviet Red Army before coming to the Red Wings. Always a leader, captaining both the Red Army and the Soviet National team during 4 World Championships. The son of a merchant sailor, his teammates their called him Dyada, Russian for Grandpa, because he was quiet, hardened and very serious in life and in hockey.

Not surprisingly he was a favorite of coach Viktor Tikhonov. Tikhonov is the man who turned Konstantinov into a full time defender. Vladi started out on the national team as a hard nosed center. And Konstantinov was a Soviet loyalist, who only dreamed of playing in the west with a CCCP jersey on.

Konstantinov joined the Red Wings with little fanfare in 1991-92 but quickly established himself as not only a rock solid defenseman, but also a very physical one. Even though he stood only 5'11" tall and weighed 190lbs, he was likely pound for pound the toughest guy in the NHL. He was also one of the most devastating open ice hitters in League history.

League-wide recognition was finally starting to come Vladi's way by 1996. He led the league with +60 and was named the Second All Star team. Konstantinov became part of the now famous "Russian Five" or the "Red Wings Army" as coach Scotty Bowman used blue liners Konstantinov and Fetisov with forwards Slava Kozlov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Fedorov to create the first Russian 5 man unit in the NHL. It was common practice in Russian hockey to use the same five players in what was known as a unit, whereas in North America the forward lines and defensive pairings were seldom kept together.

1997 saw him emerge as an elite defenseman, finishing a close second to New York's Brian Leetch as the best defenseman in hockey. More importantly, Konstantinov helped the Red Wings raise the Stanley Cup for the first time in 42 years.

Parties ensued, but only for 6 days.

Konstantinov's locker was turned into shrine for the entire 1997-98 season. The tribute served all the inspiration the Wings would need win another Stanley Cup in 1998.

7 comments:

Brian 12:50 PM  

We miss you vlady, you are the heart and soul of the team. We won't forget.

Anonymous,  9:32 PM  

vladi,I think of u when the puck
drops.

Dan 8:16 PM  

5-19-09
As I just watched the Red Wings beat the Blackhawks in game 2 of the conference finals of the
08/09 season my thoughts went back many years to the Days of Vlad the Gladiator. What a great era and what great players. My heart is still saddened by Vlad's tragedy. May God Bless him

Anonymous,  9:38 AM  

Vladi, you will always ... ALWAYS ... be my favorite Wing and my inspiration.

Prophet316 6:38 AM  

The hockey image of Vlad that is forever etched in my mind is him hip checking Claude Lemiuex and watching Lemieux do a end over end flip from that vicious hip check, that Vlad was all too famous for.

Stacy H (Detroit),  9:43 AM  

Vladi, still haven't forgot about u. As a new hockey season comes underway, again I think back to the days of our Russian 5. We had a great team back then & I am more than proud that u were a part of it. U helped make the Red Wings what they are today and started a great line of wins 4 us. Thank u so very much:)

Anonymous,  6:32 PM  

Vladimir, We (your fans) Miss seeing you out on that ice. I sit here watching the Red Wings play years later in Ft. Riley, Ks. & I can't help but think about you. You ARE a great hockey player! That you will NEVER loss. We love & miss you.

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