Vladimir Konstantinov has the kind of mug that inspires
nicknames. To Detroit Red Wings fans, who focus on the
defenseman's low brow, flattened nose and facial scars, he is
the Vladinator. This character is celebrated inside Joe Louis
Arena with a video that shows Konstantinov terminating players
and then appearing in dark shades, saying, "Hasta la vista,
baby!" in his thick Russian accent. To his teammates, who have
watched him develop into one of the NHL's top defensemen,
Konstantinov is simply George. His high cheekbones and goofy
smile, they say, are similar to those of the children's-book
monkey Curious George. "This name, CAR-rhee-ush George," the
30-year-old Konstantinov says slowly, "I don't know if I like so
In that case he can choose from several other monikers. During
his seven seasons with the Soviet Central Red Army team (1984-85
to 1990-91), Konstantinov, who's missing most of his front
teeth, picked up the name Grandpa. "He looks like he is 55 years
old," says Detroit center Igor Larionov, a former Red Army
Around the NHL, however, the nicknames aren't quite as cuddly.
In six seasons with the Red Wings, Konstantinov has become one
of the most feared and loathed players in the game. He's known
for leaving his feet to crush an opponent, hitting after the
whistle, aiming for knees with his checks and, most of all,
using his stick to perform on-ice surgery. That specialty has
earned Konstantinov the label Vladi the Impaler. "If Vladi's
mother were standing in the crease, he'd cross-check her," says
Detroit forward Joey Kocur. "There aren't many people like him,
and if there were, we'd all be in a constant state of war."
Adds Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan, "When I played against
him in St. Louis, I thought he was a borderline dirty player.
Now that I play with him, I know he's a borderline dirty
player." This is what Konstantinov's teammates say about him.
Colorado Avalanche coach Marc Crawford, who watched Konstantinov
irritate, bully and shut down many of his forwards during the
Western Conference finals, which Detroit won in six games,
whined that Konstantinov commits "a penalty every shift he's on
the ice." Three days before the start of the Stanley Cup finals,
perhaps haunted by memories of what Konstantinov had done to the
Philadelphia Flyers' Eric Lindros during the two regular-season
Detroit-Philly meetings (Lindros had no goals and one assist but
picked up 12 penalty minutes in a loss and a tie), Flyers coach
Terry Murray said Konstantinov is "one of the dirtiest
defensemen in the league." Outside the CoreStates Center in
Philadelphia last Saturday night, after the Red Wings had
thumped the Flyers 4-2 in Game 1 of the Cup finals, fans were
calling him "that f------ Commie."
It's a hallmark of all hard-nosed players that their teammates
love them and their opponents hate their guts. "I don't mind
what people call me," says Konstantinov. "They say I'm mean. I'm
dirty. I'm the bad boy. And I like this. I get recognition from
Detroit fans and my teammates for making big open-ice checks. So
other people can say what they want. I don't care. It means they
think of me instead of thinking of the game. That means I win."
Indeed, during Game 1 Lindros and the rest of the Flyers looked
out of sync trying to keep one eye on Konstantinov, who at six
feet and 190 pounds is small for such a physical player, and the
other eye on the task at hand. If Konstantinov and the rest of
the speedy Wings continue to stand up to Philadelphia's big
bodies throughout the series, Detroit could end its 42-year Cup
drought. For perhaps the first time since the days of Bobby Orr,
the finals may turn on the play of a defenseman. Konstantinov is
ready. "The elbows, the sticks--everything is sharpened," he
said last Friday.
On Saturday night nothing was as sharp as Konstantinov's skates.
As most European players are taught to do from an early age,
Konstantinov and Detroit's four other Russian players were often
circling on the ice. Konstantinov is always swooping and
spinning, like a predator looking for prey. That's when another
feature of his unique puss comes into focus, seemingly the only
one that has yet to inspire a nickname. As he circles, he also
squints, his green eyes in constant motion, darting from one
target to the next. The way he orbits opponents while giving
them that cold, amoral stare, Konstantinov doesn't look like a
Vladinator, a George, a Grandpa or an Impaler. He looks like a
shark on frozen water. A Red Shark.
"If Vladi sees that the crest on the sweater is not a Red Wing,
something inside him just lights up," says Detroit assistant
coach Dave Lewis. "North American players differentiate between
players and stars. Vladi just sees the crest, and he makes it a
war. If you're 235 pounds, like Eric Lindros, he'll hit you. If
you're the smallest guy on the team, he'll hit you. If he thinks
he can get away with something, he'll do it. He loves the fact
that other teams hate him."
Of all his skills, Konstantinov's greatest asset to the Red
Wings is his knack for pestering an opponent's top player like a
bothersome little brother. "Vladi can tell when he gets under
your skin," says Detroit forward Darren McCarty. "And when he
does, he's going to burrow."
Before facing Lindros and Co., Konstantinov helped hold
Avalanche star center Peter Forsberg to one point in five games
in the conference finals. Against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in
Round 2, Konstantinov knocked out forward Ted Drury in a
In a regular-season game Konstantinov goaded Mark Messier of the
New York Rangers into drawing a 10-minute misconduct penalty and
even had Wayne Gretzky putting up his dukes. During the Red
Wings' final regular-season meeting with the Flyers, on Jan. 25,
Konstantinov got to Lindros, who retaliated by hitting him with
a cheap-shot bodycheck into the boards that caused a two-inch
cut on the back of Konstantinov's head.
Last Saturday, Konstantinov shoved 6'5", 240-pound Philadelphia
forward Dan Kordic's face into the crossbar of the Detroit goal,
knocking the cage off its pegs and back five feet. He also
clobbered right wing Trent Klatt near the Red Wings' blue line,
sending him spinning like a top. Konstantinov also kept busy
dinking guys once they relaxed after the whistle, which is
perhaps the worst offense in hockey's unwritten code of conduct.
But he was never whistled for a penalty.
So, yes, you can label him dirty. Dirty like Dick Butkus
flattening a quarterback. Dirty like John Stockton setting a
pick. Dirty like Roger Clemens brushing back a hitter. Dirty
like many other NHL players. "Everybody has some tricks they
use," says Konstantinov. "Everybody in the league does something
dirty. I play a very, very mean style of hockey. When I step on
the ice, I am not polite. I have no friends."
That is not to say, however, that he is not skilled.
Konstantinov, who had five goals, 33 assists and 151 penalty
minutes in the regular season, is one of three finalists for the
Norris Trophy, given each year to the NHL's top defenseman. In
1995-96 Konstantinov led the league with an eye-popping plus 60
in the plus/minus statistics. This year, despite nursing a torn
left Achilles tendon in the early going, he was tied for third
in the NHL, with a plus 38. Had he finished first again,
Konstantinov would have joined Orr and Gretzky as the only
players in the last 30 years to lead the NHL in that statistic
two seasons in a row. That kind of production begs this
question: If Konstantinov had been born in North America, would
the word dirty be used to describe his play, or would adjectives
like cagey, scrappy and savvy (Flyers goalie Ron Hextall has
called him "spunky") be more common? If the Norris Trophy were
truly about defense--and not an award usually given to the most
talented offensive defender--Konstantinov probably would have
been the easy winner the last two years. "Vladi has no real
weaknesses," says Detroit assistant general manager Ken Holland.
"He can create and score goals, he's mobile, he's tough, and it
doesn't matter what type of game you want to play; he's happy
All of Konstantinov's skills can be traced to his schooling in
classic Russian hockey, which emphasizes puck control and
movement. Konstantinov, who is the son of a fisherman and the
doting father of an eight-year-old girl named Anastasia, spent
the first five years of his career in the Soviet national-team
program, until age 19, playing forward. He was even a center for
the Soviet team at the 1986 world championships and switched to
defense only when he realized that it gave him a better chance
for success on the Red Army team, which was always looking for
Konstantinov's speed allows him to pick up forwards in the
neutral zone. It also enables him to make a big hit or ride an
opponent out of a play for a little surreptitious shenanigans
and still get back into the action before his team misses him.
His offensive training makes him adept at pinpoint outlet passes
and jumping up into the offensive zone as an extra attacker, as
he did several times against Philadelphia in Game 1.
When Konstantinov was learning the sport in the U.S.S.R.,
players were often benched if they were whistled for penalties.
When penalty-free hockey is your ticket out of a place like
Konstantinov's hometown of Murmansk, a port 150 miles north of
the Arctic Circle where the sun shines an average of just two
hours a day during the winter and hockey is played outside in
subzero temperatures, you become good at being sneaky.
Konstantinov's transgressions are almost always out of the
referees' sight, and when his opponent reacts, Konstantinov
rarely retaliates, which he has learned can drive players in the
NHL battier than a hundred hip checks can.
With the Flyers trailing by two goals late in Game 1, Lindros
finally cracked, and the Impaler became the Impalee. Lindros,
who was tangled up along the boards with Konstantinov, first
attempted to quarter him with his stick. When that didn't work,
Lindros hammered him with a wicked right cross and spent nearly
the rest of the game in the penalty box. From there Lindros
watched as the disappointed Philadelphia faithful filed out of
the arena early, hoping to avoid traffic.
Konstantinov left early too. He needed five stitches near the
corner of his right eye to close a wound from an earlier high
stick. After the game he emerged from the locker room dressed in
a sharp black suit and a yellow paisley tie and stopped walking
only when someone asked him if it was nice to know how deeply he
had already burrowed under the skin of Lindros and the Flyers.
He didn't answer the question. He just turned and remained
silent as a wry grin slowly spread across his face. It was the
look of a shark smiling.