Friday, March 19, 2010
Vladimir Konstantinov, born on this date in 1967, first caught the attention of North American scouts during the famous brawl during the 1987 World Junior Championships. "He was the only one of the Russians who fought back," recalled scout Neil Smith.
Konstantinov, a defenseman, specialized in getting opponents off their game. "I don't need to score the goal. I need someone to start thinking about me and forgetting about scoring goals."
His career begain with the Central Sports Club of the Army (CSKA), or "Soviet Red Army", in 1984-85 as a 17 year old, playing in 40 games that season, which concluded with the usual championship for Red Army. Success continued for Konstantinov the following season with another Soviet League Championship as well as gold medals in both the 1986 World Junior Championships and the World Championship. Not a bad way to start one's career by going four for four with two national championships and a pair of gold medals.
1986-87 saw another championship with Red Army and the attention getting participation in the massive brawl at the 1987 World Juniors. The 1987-88 season ended with the expected fourth Soviet League championship, followed by his fifth consecutive Soviet championship and his second gold medal at the World Championships in 1988-89. There was one other event that would change the course of Konstantinov's career, being selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the twelfth round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft 221st overall. Keep in mind that this was still the time of the Soviet Union, and it was never certain that any player from a communist country would ever be allowed to come to North America and play, but with the older Sergei Pryakhin being allowed to play in the NHL just prior to that year's draft, it was worth the risk with a late pick to select a Soviet player just in case.
While the run of Soviet Championships came to an end in 1990, Konstantinov scored 14 goals and 13 assists for 27 points, by far his highest offensive output while with Red Army, and he collected his third World Championship gold medal. One final season in the Soviet Union concluded with a bronze medal at the World Championships.
With the break up of the Soviet Union and players now being allowed to choose to play in the NHL, Konstantinov now came to North America to join the Red Wings where is physical nature fit in well with the North American style of play. Eventually, his frequent use of his stick on opposing forwards would earn him the intimidating nickname of "Vlad the Impaler". It must have been an adjustment for the former Soviet League players to now participate in a regular season over 30 games longer before even facing a potential 28 additional playoff games.
Fortunately for Konstantinov, Sergei Fedorov had been playing in Detroit for a year already to help guide him through the adjustment to life in the Motor City. Konstantinov made a good account of himself though, with 33 points in 79 games played, plus an additional 11 playoff games.
Two more seasons with 22 points in 82 games in 1993 and another 33 points in 80 games in 1994 saw seven more additional playoff games each season helped establish Konstantinov as an NHL regular and a reliable and rugged force on defense.
The Red Wings made a deep playoff run in 1995, making it all the way to the finals, which helped prepare the Red Wings for what was to come.
With the arrival of Vyacheslav Fetisov in the summer of 1995 and Igor Larionov just before the start of the 1995-96 season, the Red Wings unleashed something new on the rest of the NHL, The Russian Five.
Capturing the President's Trophy with the best regular season record during the regular season, the Red Wings made it as far as the Western Conference finals, adding to their playoff experience and hunger for a championship. Konstantinov's 14 goals that season were his highest NHL total and his four goals and five assists for nine points in 19 playoff games were more than double his playoff scoring for any other season of his career.
Konstantinov set a career high during the 1996-97 season with 38 points as the Red Wings finished third in the Western Conference. They blitzed the competition during the playoffs, wining the Stanley Cup with a record of 16-4 during four rounds to capture the first Stanley Cup for the Red Wings since 1955 and adding even more hardware to Konstantinov's trophy case, which already included five Soviet Championships, three gold medals and one bronze medal at the World Championships and a gold at from the World Juniors.
Tragically, on Friday, June 13th, 1997 the Detroit Red Wings held a golf tournament and dinner for many of their players and staff six days after sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers to win the Stanley Cup. Afterwards, Konstantinov, Fetisov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov were riding in a limousine when the driver, whose license has already been revoked, fell asleep while driving. With the car now out of control, it crossed three lanes of traffic and struck a tree. The accident left Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov each with serious head injuries. Fetisov was also hurt, but his life was not in danger.
It would take five weeks for Konstantinov to emerge from his coma, barely aware of what was going on around him. He faced a long road ahead of him, over the next year relearning basic skills such as recognizing friends and family, eating and operating a wheelchair.
The following season the Red Wings wore a "VK & SM" patch with the word "Believe" in both English and Russian to honor Konstantinov and Mnastsakanov as they emotionally captured their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
To this day Konstantinov still needs a walker to assist him in getting around, but has made remarkable progress from where he once was. His number 16, while not officially retired by the Red Wings, has not been worn since.
Today's featured jersey is a CCM 1991-92 Detroit Red Wings Valdimir Konstantinov Turn Back the Clock Jersey. As part of the celebrations of the NHL's 75th anniversary in the 1991-92 season, the Original Six teams, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Montreal and Toronto, all wore a Turn Back the Clock jersey from their past at various times throughout the season.
The success of the Turn Back the Clock jerseys would inspire both the NFL and NBA, with teams in those leagues also wearing throwbacks to celebrate their 75th and 50th anniversary seasons, but credit must be given to the Chicago White Sox, who wore the first throwback jerseys during the 1990 MLB season.
Here, Konstantinov delivers a thunderous hit in the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals.
Next, Konstantinov sends Claude Lemeiux flying with a hip check.
Here is a brief profile of "The Russian Five" from early 1996.
In one of the most memorable moments in NHL, if not all of sports, history, Steve Yzerman presents the recovering Konstantinov with the Stanley Cup in 1998.
Here is an update from ESPN on the remarkable, but decidedly incomplete, recovery Konstantinov has made that was originally aired in April of 2009. For more on the story, click here.