There's not much happening in Red Wing Nation today, nor in the NHL as a whole. The fallout from the Kovalchuk decision is still happening, with columnists and fans all weighing in with their opinions on everything from who he will sign with to how this will affect labour negotiations in the future. But today I want to get right into it, so I present #8 on my list.
Pertinent Stats: 446 GP, 47 G, 128 A, 175 P, +185, 838 PIM
Stanley Cups: 2 - 1997, 1998
I won't lie to you: this one is going to be tough for me, because Vlad was one of my favourite players on the team. There was always something about him that was different from the rest of the Wings. Most of the players were "good" guys who, from time to time, played with varying degrees of an edge. Vlad had no edge. If the Wings were a tool box, Vlad was the sledge hammer. I loved the way he played. There was no real "style" to his game, as he was all about substance, that substance being his bulky frame, which he threw around with impunity.
Konstaninov was selected in the 11th round of the epic 1989 draft (the same draft that yielded Lidstrom, Federov and Drake). He cracked the lineup for the 1991-92 season, and after an impressive rookie year, he was named to the NHL's All-Rookie Team. He was never a particularly gifted scorer, but the Wings got him for his defense, not for his offense. His best season offensively was 96-97, when he tallied 38 points, but only 5 goals. However, his +/- was off the charts, including a ridiculous +60 in 95-96, the highest in the league. This was the year the "Russian Five" was put together, with Vlad playing the part of the muscle on the line. His nicknames were "Vlad the Impaler" and the "Vladinator", and they fit his style of play perfectly. He was easily the most feared hitter on the team, and by '96-97, was being recognized as one of the best open-ice hitters in the entire league.
I loved Vlad. I loved the fact he couldn't really speak English, yet he would hit guys so hard they could forget how to speak it themselves. I loved that he threw one of my favourite hits of all time (the first one, although the second one was pretty awesome as well):
I loved that, despite his physicality, he still had some decent hands. I loved that he was a Norris Trophy candidate before Lidstrom ever was (and that's not a knock on Lidstrom - that just shows how good Konstantinov was, especially considering he wasn't great offensively). I loved that he was one of the toughest pound-for-pound players in the NHL, which completely flew in the face of the stereotype of the soft Russian. I loved that he looked evil and mean, like the bad guy in any Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Mostly, I loved that, together with Lidstrom, they formed the best 1-2 punch of defensemen in the NHL. Think about it: after facing Lidstrom for 30-40 seconds, opponents would then have to face Vlad. The Wings won the Cup in 1997, and Konstantinov played a pivotal role.
Then it all went to shit.
We all know the story: the team is out celebrating and does the responsible thing by hiring limousines for the players. Vlad, Slava Fetisov and Sergei Mnatsakanov get into a limo driven by Richard Gnida, who had no business being behind the wheel of his own car, let alone being responsible for driving other people (but I won't get into that, because to talk about him will result in my fist being driven through my computer screen - I should probably see someone about my rage issues). It's strange to think that getting into a car drastically altered the lives of 2 people, but that's exactly what happened. Gnida lost control of the limo and it struck a tree. Suddenly Vlad's carrier is over, and more importantly, his life is in jeopardy.
I'm sure every Red Wing fan knows where they were when they heard the news about the accident. I was at a pool hall with my friends, sporting my brand new Stanley Cup Champions hat and shirt. What made this particularly awesome is that I was among many bitter Maple Leaf fans; those same fans that had tortured and taunted me over the Wings' many failures in the past 10 years. I finally had my revenge, and boy did I let everyone in that place know that I cheered for a winner. I glanced over at the TV and saw the Sportscenter anchor talking. There was no sound, but they had Vlad's picture up in the corner, and the look on the anchor's face was serious. I got an uneasy feeling, but that was nothing compared to what I felt after the next image popped up on the screen: the mangled limo. Suddenly it all become clear. I only caught a few words and phrases of what the anchor said: limo crash....Vlad seriously hurt....critical. They broke away to commercial, and then I did something.
This wasn't the "full-on, sobbing uncontrollably" kind of cry. It was only a few tears, but for me, this was huge. I've cried very few times in the last 15 years: my wedding (there's a joke in there, but I'll save that for another day), the days my daughters were born, and when my grandmother recently passed away. Besides those instances, there were 3 other times, 2 within a week of each other: Vlad's accident and the night they won a week before that. I cried because I knew his career was done; I realized that it was selfish of me to think that, because I was looking at it from the perspective of a Wing fan, knowing that we just lost one of the most important members of the team. But as I learned more about him and his family, I realized that while I will be sad for a while, it will pass and we will all move on, but for Vlad and his family, the struggle back to normalcy was just beginning.
The 1997-98 season could have been the script of a movie: a team overcomes decades of frustration and wins a championship; during the celebration of that championship, a team member is critically injured through no fault of his own; the team dedicates the following season to the player and repeats as champions. There were even the required emotional scenes: the return of Vladdy to the Joe during the Conference Finals against Dallas was one and the presenting of the Cup to him while he was in his wheelchair at center ice, with the entire team gathering around him to celebrate. Remember when I said there were 3 non-family related times I cried? Guess when number 3 happened. The series between the Wings and Caps, overall, was a snoozefest. But that Cup presentation was one of the best I've ever seen, and solidified the fact that these guys were a team, not just a bunch of players trying to win.
I realize that Vlad was a little high on this list, and most of that is just my sentimentality coming through. But what gets lost in the discussion about him was just how damn good he was. From a Red Wing perspective, it's such a shame that his career ended the way it did, because he was just coming into form as a dominant defenseman in the NHL, and I have no doubts he would have helped the Wings win a few more Cups down the line. He could hit with the best of them, and wasn't afraid to drop his gloves and take a guy on, which was impressive considering that he wasn't a big guy himself (5'11", 190 lbs). While I always was impressed by what he brought to the team, he also contributed after the accident, becoming something the team could rally around in their quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. The '98 Wings were the last team to repeat (a trend that will continue this year: suck it Blackhawks), and Vlad's injuries were a large part of that, giving the team a reason (beyond all the obvious ones) to do their best and win it all. As the years have passed, stories have come out that show that Vlad is not all the way back, and probably never will get to the place he was at before the accident. But he has persevered through all the rehab and treatment to get to a point where he can function day to day, and after what happened, that's pretty inspirational. The Wings have not had a player since Vlad that was as tough as he was in terms of hitting: while Kronwall may dish out some big checks, he's not as ferocious as Vlad was. He's easily the best pure hitter I've ever seen in a Red Wing uniform. Maybe this was my heart talking more than my head, but there are not many players I would consider better than Vlad in my lifetime. Therefore, he gets the #8 spot on the Greatest Red Wings of My Time.