Road to Stanleytown: Vladimir Konstantinov on critics: ‘I play for my team, not them’

Detroit Free Press

In the spring of 1997 — a quarter-century ago — the Detroit Red Wings embarked on their quest to end a 42-year Stanley Cup drought.

The Free Press has commemorated that historic quest with a new book: “Stanleytown: The Inside Story of How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City After 41 Frustrating Seasons.”

Day 45: May 30, 1997

The backstory: On the eve of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Red Wings practiced for the first time in Philadelphia, although in the Spectrum, the Flyers’ old home, because the circus was in town at the next-door CoreStates Center. Arena officials guaranteed CoreStates would be game ready with perfect ice in plenty of time for Game 1. Ice crews were expected to start work around 1 a.m., after Friday night’s performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. To ensure a slick rink, the NHL’s ice guru, Dan Craig, was on the case. His name last popped up during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, when a partial power outage led to slushy conditions in Denver’s McNichols Arena. Also at the Spectrum, the NHL held its Stanley Cup Finals media day. Players were paired at tables in a restaurant — and there was no shortage of interesting comments. But in a little more than 24 hours, five days after the Wings polished off the Avalanche and six days after the Flyers ousted the Rangers, the teams would return to the ice in pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Holy Grail. Motor City vs. the City of Brotherly Love. Coneys vs. Cheesesteaks. The Arsenal of Democracy vs. the Birthplace of America. Could the Wings end their 42-year Stanley Cup drought? Could the Flyers end their 22-year drought?

NEW COACH: What Red Wings’ 2022 search reveals about GM Steve Yzerman

Since winning the Cup in 1955, Detroit had failed in the finals in 1956, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1995. And Detroit wasn’t favored again, according to the national pundits. The Flyers were the third seed in the Eastern Conference, having finished second in the Atlantic Division with 103 points, one fewer than the New Jersey Devils. To reach the finals, the Flyers had blown away their competition — 4-1 over the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-1 over the Buffalo Sabres and 4-1 over the New York Rangers. The heart of the Flyers was the Legion of Doom line of superstar center Eric Lindros, left wing John LeClair and right wing Mikael Renberg — all at least 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds. The Wings, though, in two meetings with the Flyers, neutralized the Legion of Doom by pairing Vladimir Konstantinov and Nicklas Lidstrom on defense. Coach Scotty Bowman, however, said they wouldn’t play together except while killing penalties. The teams tied, 2-2, on Jan. 22, 1997, at The Joe, when Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Darren McCarty were injured for the Wings. Three days later, the Wings won, 4-1, in Philadelphia. Lindros was so frustrated late in the game he lined up Konstantinov, slammed him against the boards and left him dazed on the ice.

“I’m sure we’ll meet,” Lindros predicted. “He’s one of the dirtiest defensemen in the league,” Flyers coach Terry Murray said of Konstantinov. “Every time he hits, he leaves his feet and his elbows are always up.” None of that fazed Vlad the Impaler. “It doesn’t matter if others don’t like me,” Konstantinov said. “I play for my team, not them.” In the two meetings, Lindros had one assist and six minor penalties.

What to watch: The Lindros-Konstantinov storyline drew plenty of media attention. The Free Press led its latest Stanley Cup Finals section with close-up photos of Lindros and Konstantinov under the headline “Vlad the Impaler vs. Eric the Great.” Mitch Albom wrote his column about the Vladinator. And the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about their personal war for the second straight day. Under the headline “Konstantinov still remembers the Lindros hit,” Ray Parrillo wrote: “The hit by a runaway bus named Eric Lindros left Vladimir Konstantinov wobbling like a toddler trying to take his first step. After that high-speed collision midway through the third period of the Flyers-Red Wings game on Jan. 25 at the CoreStates Center, the Detroit defenseman got up, reared back slightly on his heels and dropped to a knee. A trainer with smelling salts awaited Konstantinov as he skated hazily back to the bench. He didn’t return. So Friday, there stood Konstantinov, his flattened nose and the scar tissue around his eyes testament that he takes as much as he gives, listening to questioners replay the hit again and again, pressing him to vow vengeance. A bemused smile crossed his face. ‘It was not a very hard hit,’ Konstantinov said with a shrug. ‘I’ve been hit harder than that. It’s just that I hit my head on the glass, and the glass in a new building doesn’t bounce enough.’ … Sure, Lindros got in the biggest hit, but Konstantinov rattled the big No. 88 into taking four minor penalties, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to try to irritate the Flyers’ captain because, well, Vladdie the Impaler makes a good living fraying people’s nerves.”

RUSSIAN FIVE: How Vladimir Konstantinov faked cancer to join the Red Wings

And more to read: The highlights of Albom’s insightful column on Konstantinov: “There is a word for what he does, we just don’t know what the word is. Instigator? Annoyance-maker? Stick-poker? He is technically a defenseman, but he pretty much goes where he has to go, following the other team’s best player and trying to give him fits. Irritator? Aggravator? Head-gamer? He has never led the league in scoring, nor in assists, nor in saves, but he is considered at the top of his craft — whatever that craft is. Provoker? Nerve-jangler? Button-pusher? He looks mean and he looks old, but he is neither mean nor old. He is a man with a job to do, and as the son of a fisherman from the Russian town of Murmansk, he has the work ethic for getting the job done. ‘He’s not a fighter,’ says Joe Kocur. ‘His job, I guess, is to get under other people’s skin. To check them, hit them, get them off their game. He’s intense. He’s nonstop. If everyone was brought up with his mentality? The world would be at war all the time.’ Welcome to the bumpy world of Vladimir Konstantinov — better known as Vladdie to fans, or Vlad the Impaler to enemies. He is not a hockey goon — not in the traditional sense. He is not out there to beat people up. He draws not blood, but ire. There is a word for this. Somewhere …  Exasperator? Exacerbator? Elbow-in-the-facer? ‘What is your job?’ I ask Konstantinov. He smiles, which on his face means the cheeks move a quarter of an inch.

Konstantinov, 30, is handsome enough, but in a rough way, with sharply defined bone angles and skin lines, a strong jaw, straight blondish hair. ‘My job,’ he says, in his thick accent, ‘is to have strong game.’ That’s a start. ‘Is there a name for what you do?’ Again he smiles. Another quarter-inch cheek move. ‘Is not my style to talking,’ he says. OK. Fine. People forget the Russians on the Red Wings, as much as they have become a part of local lore, still have only been in this country maybe six or seven years. They’ve had to learn a new language, a new league, a new style. Well, for Konstantinov, not all that new a style. ‘Were you always this kind of player?’ I ask. ‘No,’ he says. ‘When I am young I am a defenseman. I play regular defense.’ ‘When did that change?’ ‘When I join Red Army,’ he says, ‘I turn.’ That’ll do it. Temper-tickler? Back-shover? Rage-monger? It means have fun, Philadelphia. He’s all your problem now.”

DAY 44: Mitch Albom, Drew Sharp make Wings-Flyers 1997 Cup predictions

They said it: The master of distractions was at it again. Bowman ended his news conference by asking reporters whether they knew a way to get tickets. “I’ve been in the league now for 40 years,” he said, “and this is the most distressful time I have ever experienced. It’s pretty tough when your friends and family can’t come. … I’m (expletive) off.” The NHL heeded Bowman’s plea and supplied each team with 30 extra tickets to give them a total of 100 apiece. … Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov, icons in Russia, knew this could be their last shot at winning a Stanley Cup together. Larionov was bound for free agency; Fetisov was approaching 40. “This is very special for us,” Larionov said. “We’ve been friends for the last 20, 25 years.” Larionov, though, wished everyone would focus on the team he played for rather than the country where he was born. “I don’t like all this,” he said. “It’s the Red Wings, not Russia, Canada and Sweden. We represent the Red Wings and try to play our best for the Red Wings.” … Lindros, who spent almost a year living in Farmington while playing junior hockey for Compuware, praised Detroit’s fans. “The place was just nuts for hockey,” he said. “It was great. Everywhere you went, you saw little kids with Yzerman jerseys on, with Ciccarelli jerseys on. The following there is incredible. The whole place just goes gaga for hockey. They absolutely love it. They support their team even in times when they had some tough years.” … A new wave of  national reporters tried to get Flyers defenseman Paul Coffey to lash out at Bowman for embarrassing him and criticizing him before trading him in October to Hartford. “I was brought up not to do that,” Coffey said. “It didn’t make much sense, so I just forgot about it.”

Warmup acts: The Wings and Flyers played a home-and-home series three days apart in late January. They tied in Detroit and the Wings won in Philly. The Free Press’ review of the games:

Wings 2, Flyers 2 (Jan. 22 at Detroit): The Wings let a third-period lead slip away for the fourth time in five games. LeClair salvaged the tie for the Flyers midway through the final period. Philadelphia scored first when Trent Klatt beat Mike Vernon late in the first period. Lidstrom tied it when his slap shot from the blue line beat Ron Hextall at 2:42 of the second period, and Konstantinov gave the Wings a 2-1 lead less than a minute later when he converted a Coffey giveaway. The Wings played without Chris Osgood (hamstring), Fedorov (groin), Kozlov (flu) and McCarty (hand surgery).

Wings 4, Flyers 1 (Jan. 25 at Philadelphia): Konstantinov and Lidstrom neutralized the Legion of Doom again. Lindros was so frustrated, he slammed Konstantinov against the boards so hard Konstantinov had to leave the game late in the third period. The Wings, with goals from Tomas Holmstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman and Kris Draper, won for just the second time in 10 games (2-5-3). The Flyers lost for the second time in 23 games (15-2-6).

Famous last words (from the Inquirer): From Tim Panaccio: “Though the Russians will bang sometimes, they don’t enjoy being hit every shift, every period and every game over a long series. The Russians are artistes. They want to skate and cycle and mesmerize you with the puck. Not many athletes in any sport can perform while being backed up. The Red Wings are better equipped than most because of their Wizards of Ov —the five Russians whose last names end in OV. ‘It’s like having five Gretzkys on the ice,’ Coffey raved. … You’ll know this series is over when the Wizards have their heads on a swivel, when they begin looking for where the next check is coming from instead of where the puck is.”

Famous last words (from the Free Press): For his final analysis of the finals, Jason La Canfora gave the Flyers the edge in offense, the Wings the edge in defense and goaltending. La Canfora’s ending: “The Flyers’ older defense and a lack of depth will be their downfall, plus erratic goaltending. Get to Hextall early and watch him lose his cool, crack his stick, attack the net and moan to the referee. Garth Snow isn’t as effective in a relief role. The Wings’ key is withstanding the Flyers’ physical play, but if they continue to roll over four lines and spot the older defensemen, endurance should pull them through. Get ready for the parade. Wings in five.”

Relive the glory: The Free Press has crafted a 208-page, full-color, hardcover collector’s book with fresh insights and dynamic storytelling about the 1996-97 Wings. It’s called “Stanleytown 25 Years Later: The Inside Story on How the Stanley Cup Returned to the Motor City after 41 Frustrating Seasons.” It’s only $29.95 and it’s available at (It’ll make a great Father’s Day gift for the Wings fanatic in your life!) Personalized copies available via

[ Want more Red Wings news? Download our free mobile app on iPhone & Android! ] 

More to read: Another new Wings book arrived in April from Keith Gave, a longtime hockey writer for the Free Press in the 1980s and 1990s: “Vlad The Impaler: More Epic Tales from Detroit’s ’97 Stanley Cup Conquest.” It is available through Amazon and other booksellers and a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for the Vladimir Konstantinov Special Needs Trust. (Plenty of Gave’s prose also appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”)

Even more to read: Red Wings beat reporter Helene St. James, who helped cover the 1997 Stanley Cup run, recently wrote “The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Detroit Red Wings.” Featuring numerous tales about the key figures from 1997, “The Big 50” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. (Plenty of St. James’ prose also appears in “Stanleytown 25 Years Later.”)

To access our most exclusive sports content, become a Free Press subscriber

Stay informed on what’s happening across Michigan: Subscribe to our news alert emails.

Articles You May Like

Griffins Notebook: Kasper, Mazur, Danielson & More
Detroit Red Wings: Contract Projections for 2024 RFAs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *